Little Bickering was much like any other small English village; it had an old stone church standing tall in the centre, with a congregation who attended out of social embarrassment rather than any real faith, and an old Victorian school, which admitted the local middle-class children, perched dominantly at the top of the hill. And amongst the thatched cottages, horse stables and acreage, stood the village’s only pub- The White Horse. Adjacent to the pub was the war memorial which had pride of place on the village green and many residents had ancestor’s names inscribed in the cold stone which served as a reminder that generations had enjoyed the village due to the selfless acts of those who had been before. Right across the cobbled street a sign swung slowly in the mid-Summer breeze; it read, rather disingenuously, ‘Welcome to our Village.’
The respectable pub was frequented by just about everyone from the village (and even a few from the big town down the road ventured in too) as its Sunday roast was famous for miles around. The pub did however resort to unrespectable drink, tomfoolery and gossip every Friday night when a group of regulars would stage a lock-in. They weren’t exactly friends, more a collection of locals who gathered weekly to converse and display their objectionable traits. They were tolerated by the villagers because they were well off and from the village; accepted but not liked.
Belinda and Dave Rawlinson, married but unlovingly so, would sit at the table by the door and spend the evening largely ignoring each other. They were joined by Robert Carlington-Matthews, a local councillor who enjoyed his position and would talk everyone to tears about planning permission and his own importance as Chairman of Little Bickering Parish Council. The more alcohol he consumed, the more well connected he seemed to become. The only other lock in regular was Sally, who sat up at the bar, constantly texting on her phone and talking at the silent barman. She was originally from the big town down the road, but she had lived in the village for 22 years and had married a now deceased major local landowner; so, she was almost considered a local.
A copy of the Bickering Free Press, which featured the much talked about headline LOCAL MAN MURDERED, sat on the counter. They all knew the victim who had been slayed, Billy Freeman, though they did not keep company socially for Billy lived in one of the council bungalows tucked away, out of sight, behind the village hall. He wasn’t local really; he was also from the big town down the road; indeed, he and Sally had grown up on the same street, and he had only moved to the village very recently. The way many spoke about him, he wasn’t seen as a victim at all but part of a growing problem in the village. Belinda, keen to impress Robert, didn’t hold back as she gave her uninformed views on the matter.
“Everyone wants something for nothing these days. We can’t give houses to everyone! Why didn’t he work hard and pay his way? I hear he was unemployed. Probably a druggie too.”
Robert murmured his agreement as Sally downed a big gulp of her gin and tonic to disguise her discomfort, her eyes glued to her phone unseeingly.
“Yes, my dear. These damned layabouts thinking everyone owes them something. People need to take responsibility for themselves and stop expecting the rest of us to help. Bloody handouts? Get a job!”
Dave, stinking of cigarette smoke and beer, decided to chip in. “Bloody spongers and scroungers. Not living within their means! They’ve always got money for fags and booze! Nearly as bad as the lazy foreigners coming here and taking our jobs.”
He’d barely finished his rant when the pub door creaked opened to reveal a middle-aged man in a flat cap. His gaze swept the room, taking in the scene before walking slowly and deliberately towards the bar.
“The pub is closed,’ barked Robert with barely a glance at the man to whom he was showing his obvious disdain through unwarranted rudeness.
Without looking at the councillor, the man replied in a quiet yet authoritative voice. “Not to me it’s not, I have some questions about the death of Billy Freeman.”
Dave stood up, and putting his cigarette back in the packet, he stepped towards the man in the flat cap. “And what do you want with us, Mr….”
“Smith, Detective John Smith.” The man responded curtly.
“Of course,” sneered Robert and everyone sniggered. The detective fixed a smile on his face but did not rise to the bait.
“You are the Rawlinsons, I take it?” the man enquired, looking from Belinda to Dave who were a little taken back at the fact he knew their names.
The detective continued, “How long did you know the victim for?”
Dave waved his hands about dramatically and answered in a somewhat business-like fashion.
“We didn’t know the layabout in any personal capacity, of course. My firm had lent him some money recently, so it is a pity the man died. We’ll be in contact with the family, of course, see what we can recover, but I hardly remember the man, only his large interest payments.”
Dave’s eyes glinted with glee at the thought of how much money he had extracted from the poor vulnerable man and the idea that this exploitation could not continue was the only regret he had.
The detective gave Belinda a long inquisitive stare. “And how long did you know Billy for Mrs Rawlinson?”
“I didn’t.” She mumbled, looking deeply uncomfortable as pink spots appeared on her cheeks even penetrating through the thick make up.
The detective let out a long sigh and he placed his hat on the counter before taking his coat off and putting it around a nearby chair. Pulling out a notepad, he clearly wasn’t going anywhere soon.
“Hmmmm, Mrs Rawlinson, according to my sources, you had been having an affair with Billy Freeman for several weeks. Is that true?”
Both the Rawlinsons looked deeply embarrassed, and Robert let out an extremely audible gasp.
“It’s over Detective Smith, it was a stupid fling, nothing more.” Belinda barely opened her mouth to speak. “I lost myself for a few weeks.”
“Hmmm. That would give you both a motive, would it not?” The detective responded looking into one face and then the other. Neither of the Rawlinsons responded other than to glance at each other in uncertainty. The detective opened his mouth to press further when he was interrupted.
“Just a bit of rough on the side, I expect.” The councillor’s voice was clearly heard by all and this time the detective chose not to ignore him.
“Oh yes, Robert Carlington-Matthews; the local politician. You didn’t want Billy in the village, did you?” The detective referred to his notes before continuing in a disgusted tone.
“I see you wrote several letters to council officers expressing such. The last of which was the day before he died.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean I killed off the fellow! He gets given a house….”
“He was a soldier, discharged on medical grounds after 13 years’ service,” the Detective interrupted. He then turned to address the rest of the pub.
“He needed help and despite what those of you in here think, he was not lazy, nor on drugs and he had no criminal record. He was a decent man who had come across unfortunate times. You’ve seen the war memorial outside? When they came back, did they not deserve homes? Help? Kindness?”
The lock in regulars took a sudden interest in the floor as the unusual feeling of shame chipped away at each one of them. The silence stretched until it was quite unbearable. The detective turned his gaze to Sally, who did not make eye contact but instead ordered another large brandy.
“Look, I just didn’t want riff raff like that in the village.” Robert continued. “It wasn’t personal, I….”
The detective held up a hand to silence the councillor and continued to stare at Sally, waiting patiently. When it became clear that she wasn’t going to engage, he initiated the discussion.
“Sally, you were friends with Billy, were you not?” For the first time the detective’s tone lost its passive-aggressive coldness and held a genuinely warm quality.
She looked around sheepishly before letting out an indistinguishable noise.
“I beg your pardon?” The detective responded, leaning in.
“Yes.” She said in a firm voice. “So, clearly I would not do him harm!”
“No. You didn’t get him in debt or try to remove his housing or benefits. No, you’re right. In many ways you didn’t do anything to harm the victim. But you did something much worse than the three selfish bigots here.”
The detective waved a hand towards the others, who recoiled as if physically hit, and then took a step closer to Sally who finally looked him in the eye.
“You were supposed to be his friend. But when he needed you the most, you let him down. He asked you for a place to stay until he got back on his feet, didn’t he?”
Sally closed her eyes and nodded, a solitary tear made its way down her pale cheek, and she sniffed back many more.
“He may be an embarrassing reminder of your working-class heritage but when you needed help escaping your abusive first marriage, he was there for you. Yet, you couldn’t repay the favour.”
The detective shook his head in obvious disappointment and put his coat back on.
“We are all connected, you know, we must all care for each other.” He looked each person squarely in the face before putting his flat cap onto his balding head. He walked out of the pub, leaving a stunned silence behind. The silence left a ringing in the ears and a tightening of the heart.
Suddenly, there was a disturbance at the door as the letter box opened to receive the delivery of the new Bickering Free Press. Robert caught sight of the front page as it lay on the floor and let out a strangled yelp, which brought them all out of their strange trance.
“Here, they’ve got the murderer! Someone’s been charged. But then…… who was that fellow? Why was he asking all those awful questions and dishing out the dirt?”
They all looked at the door for a few moments before flinging themselves at it. Wrenching it open, they tumbled out onto the cobbled street, but Detective John Smith was nowhere to be seen. There they stood as the dazzling morning light of the new day struck them and the fresh air cleared their minds of drunkenness as well nasty thoughts and objectionable traits. Their eyes were opened, and they realised they were shameful; so, they departed that place and resolved to change their wicked ways.
The Rawlinsons were the first to leave hand in hand. They walked down the cobbled streets towards their cottage and a fresh start. They left behind greed and selfishness. Then Sally left, switching her phone off, as she ambled across the fields to her magnificent home. She left behind misplaced pride and misplaced priorities.
Then there was one. Setting off swiftly, Robert made for the village hall, for he had work to do or more precisely cruel work that needed to be undone. And so, he left behind bigotry and arrogance.
But it wasn’t just what they had left behind that night that mattered; it was also what they had discovered. From that day onwards, the wind sprinkled kindness, compassion and care throughout Little Bickering like a beautiful flower spreading its seed.
by Luke Cresswell
Luke completed a BA in English Studies at the University of Bedfordshire and has recently finished an MA in Education Studies at the University of Suffolk. He is a primary school teacher and enjoys reading and writing fiction in his spare time.