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The Shires
The Shires

The Shires

Mike_the_RookieMike_the_Rookie

The Shires

Robin Lawless (Pseudonym)

Word Count: 3,680 approx

Harry hadn’t expected this – here in deepest Sussex. His new employers, the Rawlings, were currently on a river cruise in Portugal and, on Bethany Rawlings’s instructions, Harry had come to the nearby spa centre to see the head gardener about some rare shrubs. Secreted away in lush countryside, the sprawling mock-Tudor hotel was the venue for an exhibition of some sort. It had the aura of that boutique music festival in Oxfordshire, Harry thought, which even former “hip” prime ministers felt they could attend. It undoubtedly targeted a wealthy clientele: the tents were of the glamping variety; Nissen hut-style pigsties had been turned into luxury holiday accommodation; and scattered stalls tempted well-heeled visitors with locally sourced fine sparkling wines and truffles.

As it was a day off, Harry was wearing casual gear: premium denim and a pocket tee shirt that defined his well-toned physique. Having located the gardener’s office, he saw he still had time to kill and decided to inspect the exhibits more closely.

Engrossed, Harry was caught unawares by a tall, heavily tanned woman, whose arrival was heralded by the aggressive perfume she was wearing. Early fifties, he reckoned.

‘Not too sure about these tarted up pig sties,’ she announced.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Harry replied. ‘There’s plenty of room, all mod cons and that lovely central feature of the bath and shower.’

‘Still a reminder of their former inhabitants.’

Harry smiled. ‘Take it you don’t like pigs, then,’ he said. ‘Intelligent creatures, you know. “Animal Farm” and all that?’

‘Oh, Lord. Much too woke for me. Orwell, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Bit of a commie, I heard.’ She paused. ‘And these local sparklers still have a way to go. Give me Moet any time.’

‘Talking about wine, did you know the Rawlings have just purchased an area of land for vines?’

‘No. Haven’t seen them around recently.’

‘They’re on a river cruise. On the Douro.’

‘Where’s that, when it’s at home?’

‘Northern Portugal.’

‘Never heard of it. No doubt an educational cruise, knowing Bethany.’

‘Yeah, educational cum working, I’d say. They’ll be appraising the terraced vineyards on the riverbanks.’

‘So, are you family? Friends of the Rawlings?’

‘No, according to the job description, I’m a groundsman. And my partner is a housekeeper.’

‘Oh, I see. Just thought you looked a bit like Nigel. Got that one wrong, didn’t I? Must dash.’

Snotty cow, Harry thought. He obviously hadn’t passed muster, but why had she singled him out in the first place? Was she after a toy boy or something? Judging by the group of pampered-looking men she re-joined, in candy-striped shirts and dadwear chinos, you could see why.

Georgia was sitting at the kitchen table, when Harry got back, engrossed in a book.

‘Any good?’ he asked.

‘Yeah. Naughty me,’ Georgia replied. ‘I’ve temporarily lifted one of Bethany’s cookery books. It’s ancient, but so good. Victorian, I think.’

‘Better go steady, then. She won’t take kindly to any creases or stains.’

‘Don’t worry. I’ll be careful. She’s a real foodie, you know. I found loads of recipe books in the library.’

‘Right.’ Harry went quiet. ‘Do you think we made the right move, coming here, George?’

‘You bet. Why? Not having second thoughts, are you?’

‘Dunno. Just had this weird encounter at the hotel. You know that Wilderness festival in Oxfordshire?’

‘OK, yah. Jolly good fun, don’t you know.’

Harry had to smile.

‘Well, there was this exhibition on there, straight out of Wilderness.’

‘Right.’

‘Anyway, this monied bint, fiftyish, sidled up to me, confident as you like, and started chatting me up.’

‘Oh, I say. Do I have to be on my guard, then?’ Georgia continued in posh vein.

‘Hardly. From the get-go, she oozed Tory. Must have thought I was a fellow traveller if not a party member. Then she finds out I’m a mere pleb and, just like that, drops me.’

‘And on the strength of this, you want to jack it all in. Talk about falling at the first hurdle.’

‘I’m just wondering whether we did our homework properly.’

‘Of course, we did.’

‘OK, so I’m a feeble specimen.’

You said it. You meet one bored, toffee-nosed NIMBY woman and you capitulate. What about Bethany? She’s monied, but she’s lovely.’

‘Yeah, you’re right.’

‘And Brighton was destroying us. You burning the candle at both ends and me and gin.’

‘Mothers’ ruin, eh?’

‘There you go. Just think. What a lovely place this is for kids. We don’t want to bugger those plans up.’

‘Agreed.’

‘Anyway, this should cheer you up. I’m making some haslet, a kind of meatloaf, cooked with cider. Right up your alley.’

Was it up his alley? Harry would like to think not – anymore. Oh, he knew all about cider all right: his father made the stuff.

Georgia was referring to Harry’s West Country background: roaming the Quantocks as a boy; lending a hand in both orchard and cidery; and itching to distance himself from a domineering father and what he perceived to be a country yokel image. Leaving school, he’d opted to study viticulture and oenology at Plumpton Agricultural College, just outside Brighton – London-by-the-sea. Of course, influenced by his heavy-drinking father, he’d ended up doing the Brighton thing and become a FOMO casualty. Then, attempting to maintain the lifestyle, he’d overdosed on gym, to the point where it wasn’t doing him any good. And, by that time, he’d wasted years in unfulfilling employment.

So, when he met Georgia, who had her own problems admittedly, he couldn’t believe his luck. Together, they’d turned things around and here they were, in this picturesque little town on the Weald against the backdrop of the South Downs.

Harry was in the café in the high street, savouring his cheesecake and double espresso, nose in a hardback book, when Kingsley Powell walked in.

‘Found you at last. You might have seen me at the meetings. OK if I join you?’

‘Yeah, feel free.’

‘I tried the pubs first.’

‘Sorry. Trying to wean myself off those dens of iniquity.’

‘Bad as that, is it?’

‘No, I’ll make out.’

Not wishing to be rude, Harry closed his book.

‘Striking book cover,’ Kingsley said, noticing the word “trespass” in the title.

‘Yeah, the guy designed his own dust jacket,’ Harry informed him.

It looked like a linocut print and was a stylised moonlit scene with slender trees, a deer, and barbed wire in the foreground.

‘You’re new to the area, aren’t you?’

‘Yeah, me and Georgia have been here four months now.’

‘Yes, we’re newcomers, too. Beverley and me. What do you think of the place?’

‘It’s OK. Our employers, the Rawlings, are decent. They’ve got money but don’t flaunt it. I’m the groundsman, but I’m hoping to be in on their vineyard project.’

‘Right. Could be a shrewd move on their part. And yours, of course. English wine’s really taking off now, isn’t it?’

‘That’s right. Some of the people - out-of-towners - are a bit stand-offish, though.’

‘I know what you mean. They come in here and order Café Lartays. Uncultured lot.’

‘Excuse me while I yawn.’

Kingsley laughed. ‘But, as you know from the meetings, there are some One Nation Conservatives around, concerned about poverty on the council estate.’

‘OK. Or maybe they’re just savvy Brexiteers covering their own backs, afraid the Lib Dems or even Labour get in.’

‘True.’

When that topic had been exhausted, Kingsley said: ‘I’m really intrigued by that book of yours. It reminds me of my dad when he was a hippy in Berlin. There were these grand properties by a big lake called Wannsee, and he and his mate would take shortcuts through the grounds to gain access. Apparently, they’d just brazenly march past these toffs drinking champagne outside. Probably reformed Nazis, he said.’

‘Sounds familiar. That former editor of the Daily Message lives round here, doesn’t he? He would have made a good Nazi.’

Harry had been weeding all morning – tiresome couch grass, horsetail and dandelions that had to be completely eradicated so they couldn’t re-invade. Wasn’t that the Latin root for to root out? he smiled at his own wordplay. That was Georgia’s influence. She was always coming up with puns or teasing out “le mot juste”. Well, right now, he was “pissed off” with weeding - did that fit the bill linguistically? Of course, getting rid of weeds organically was much more time-consuming than the industrial answer, but he was with Bethany on that one. And it was hard work, of course. He needed a break.

Changing into his trainers and denim jacket, Harry went for a leisurely walk. Georgia was right about this place: it was so peaceful, like the Quantocks. In his early thirties now, on his regular walks in the vicinity here, he was always on the lookout for wild orchids. Apparently, there were twenty-three species to be found in Sussex.

Harry reached the road before he knew it. Still some way off, the intrusive sound of a powerful engine impinged on his consciousness. In today’s world, rural peace could be shattered just like that.

Before he could re-enter the wood, Harry now had to negotiate a stretch of winding road. The car engine was getting louder and louder. And then it was upon him. Instinctively, he knew the driver was taking these bends far too quickly and dived into the ferns by the roadside. In the nick of time, he realised. It was all a bit of a blur, but he registered the car make - Aston Martin – and was pretty sure a woman was at the wheel. What the hell!?

Harry and Georgia were en route to the Powell’s house for dinner and had got a bit lost. Just when you need your mobiles most, you leave them at home, Harry thought wryly, but he had a pretty good idea where they were going anyway. Whilst Georgia drove, he checked road names.

Suddenly, Harry almost yelped: ‘That’s that bloody car! The one that ran me off the road.’

The Aston Martin was parked at the end of a long drive. ‘Just stop a moment, George. I’ll get the registration.’ He rooted around in the glove compartment for his birding binoculars and a notebook and pen.

In the meantime, Georgia appraised the house. ‘What a monstrosity!’ she exclaimed. ‘It’s a hideous new build. Could be a Premier League footballer’s mansion. Look, it’s got neo-Classical pillars and a triple garage. Bet it’s got a built-in cinema, too!’

‘Highly likely,’ Harry agreed. ‘Not a patch on Bethany and Nigel’s place, is it? Didn’t Nigel say it was Georgian?’

‘Yeah. Like me,’ Georgia grinned. ‘Small but classy.’

‘Yes, that’s Melanie Rogers’s Aston Martin coupe,‘ Kingsley confirmed over the starter.

‘Much too powerful for an old sot like Melanie,’ Beverley said. ‘She was doing the usual the other night, Kingsley, in the Swan - pontificating for all to hear on the most banal topics.’

(Harry wondered whether the notorious Melanie might possibly be the woman who’d approached him at the exhibition.)

‘What’s the Swan like?’ Georgia asked.

‘Well, it’s not my scene. Full of nouveau riche types - like Melanie. The Greens hold their meetings upstairs, thank God,’ Beverley answered.

‘Yes, Melanie’s a speed freak,’ Kingsley said. ‘And a boozer to boot. When she’s not at the spa centre or terrorising the Sussex lanes, she’s down the pub. You have to get through your day somehow, I suppose.’

‘These Tory philistines are so bloody juvenile,’ Harry said. ‘Can’t they get a hobby or something? Work in the community, get involved in good causes? There’s always the Peartree estate. It’s not just Northern towns that need help.’

‘Didn’t you say there was a protest in the offing, Harry?’ Georgia asked

‘Yeah, there’s something brewing.’ Harry replied.

‘Capitalism, I’m afraid,’ Kingsley said, ‘or that nebulous thing people call the economy, just ain’t hacking it anymore.’

‘The obscenely rich might disagree with you there,’ Georgia said.

‘What? Like the Chancellor’s multi-millionaire wife and her non-dom status?’ Harry said.

‘It’s hard to take in, isn’t it?’’ Kingsley said. ‘When, at the other extreme, universal credit’s being cut.’

‘So, when will people finally get it?’ Harry remonstrated. ‘It’s not levelling up that’s needed. It’s levelling down!’

The morning after the Rawlings returned, Bethany found Harry at work in the composting area, where he was mixing green and brown materials.

‘Thanks for getting the shrubs, Harry,’ Bethany said

‘Pleasure,’ Harry said. ‘So, how was Portugal?’

‘Marvellous. Perfect weather, good food and, of course, excellent wine! You know, apart from port and vinho verde, Portuguese wine is terra incognita, swarming with indigenous grapes nobody’s ever heard of.’

‘Vinho verde‘s the one with the spritz, isn’t it?’

‘Yah, that’s right.’

‘Pretty refreshing, as I recall.’

‘Funny you should say that, Harry. Nigel and I thought that, too. The spritz, however, isn’t natural, apparently, and the better-quality stuff doesn’t have it. But fizzy is in these days, isn’t it?’

‘The prosecco boom, you mean.’

‘Yah. You know what? We thought we’d try growing some Albarino, one of the grapes that goes into it. Like us here, the weather in that region is subject to an Atlantic influence. So, who knows?’

‘Sounds intriguing.’

‘By the way, I took the liberty of revisiting your CV, Harry. I hope you don’t mind.’

‘Of course not.’

‘Plumpton was very impressed with you as a student you know.’

‘Really? Must have been my cidermaking background.’

‘Certainly advantageous, I’d say. But then, after you’d finished the course, you seemed to go off into the wilderness, if I may be so bold.’

‘Yeah, I’m not proud of that. Think I’ve mended my ways though. Especially now me and Georgia are planning a family.’

‘Right. Anyway, do some research into vinho verde for me, would you. I could do with somebody else’s input here. Even if it’s just to tell me it’s an unworkable madcap idea.’

‘OK. Will do.’

‘And then of course, there’s the proper sparkling stuff to address…’

For Harry, it was a rare visit to the pub. Kingsley wanted to discuss urgent business, he’d said. He’d recently read Harry’s book and become obsessed with gaining access to a mansion in the vicinity; the home counties were bristling with them, of course. From the outset, he’d dismissed Nicholas Hogg’s hauntingly abandoned white elephant: the man was a convicted criminal! But the estate owned by Phil Darker, the former newspaper editor, was eminently suitable. Moreover, it would chime in with the public mood. Whilst people on council estates were struggling against the odds, Darker was a man of leisure dividing his time between properties in Scotland, London and the British Virgin Islands.

‘So, what are you cooking up, Kingsley?’ Harry said, nursing his glass of white wine.

‘Doing a recce on Darker’s pile. Basically, finding a scalable bit of wall with tree cover. Then going in at night, grabbing a few hours’ kip and, at dawn, checking the lie of the land.’

‘I hope there’s a point to this.’

‘Of course. Haven’t you heard the latest on the march?’

‘No.’

‘Well, it’s on.’

‘Oh, great.’

‘Some young guys on the estate pushed for it. Inspired by that young black football player.’

‘Cool. Could this be the start of a new youth movement, I wonder?’

‘Not unthinkable. There are hopeful signs. Back to the matter in hand, though. Our invasion of that bastard’s privacy could coincide with that. And by “our” I don’t mean just us. Maybe we can rope other people in.’

‘So, what about photographic evidence for the media?’

‘Not a problem. What are mobile phones for?’

The following Saturday, Harry and Georgia invited the Powells to the gatehouse for a return dinner. During the meal, Beverley extoled the virtues of their daughter, Laura, who was visiting soon. Only briefly, unfortunately. Laura held a research post in political science at the Free University of Berlin and she explained how that had come about. Her adored grandfather had been behind it: his tales of “epater le bourgeois” and rubbing shoulders with revolutionary students like Rudi Dutschke and Dany le Rouge had enthralled her.

The guests left just after midnight and Harry and Georgia snuggled up to each other on the settee with another glass of port, courtesy of the Rawlings. The washing up would have to wait until the following morning.

‘I missed my period this month, Harry,’ Georgia announced.

‘Oh, yeah? That’s great news,’ Harry said.

‘It doesn’t necessarily follow that I’m pregnant,’ Georgia went on.

‘No, I know. But you haven’t been stressed out or exercising too much, have you?’

‘No. My gut feeling is I’m pregnant. In which case, of course, I shall have to give this up,’ she said, pointing to her glass

‘Wow! Parenthood. Get your head around that!’

‘We could have another Laura or Larry on our hands you know. Did you see how chuffed Beverley was?’

‘Yeah. And Kingsley. Don’t forget it’s his dad we’re talking about.’

‘Yep. Let’s hope we’re as inspirational as him in future.’

‘Well, you could be the new Delia Smith.’

‘Yeah. And you could be the king of English champagne.’

‘Non non! You can’t call English sparkling plonk champagne. Only we are allowed to use that appellation.’

‘You know what I mean. And your French accent’s atrocious, by the way.’

‘Well, you’re the linguist around here.’

‘Hey, Harry. I’ve just had a thought. What about a water birth?’

‘Steady on now, George. We’re nowhere near the endgame yet.’

Harry and Georgia took their seats in the large reception room at the big house. Bethany Rawlings was a leading light in the local arts society and, as well as attending meetings to discuss events and promotions, she and her husband hosted musical soirees from time to time. On this occasion, it was a harpsichord recital.

In the run-up to the performance, Georgia had been her usual bubbly self, keen to hear renditions of pieces by Bach, Scarlatti and Couperin soon and trying to fire Harry up. It was all right for her, Harry thought: she’d learned to play piano up to Grade 6. His wasn’t a musical family and sitting here without squirming for two hours was a big ask. Well, he could always focus on the interval, he supposed, when Georgia’s canapes and the local Bolney rose were on offer.

The music they were about to listen to was Baroque, apparently, for all that meant. Harry tended to label everything that wasn’t rock, pop or jazz etc as classical – an oversimplification, he knew, if not downright misleading. However, one thing was for certain. He wasn’t going to be a nouveau riche boor like Melanie Rogers.

It was time to get kitted out. Kingsley had stored the gear in his garage. There were four of them: Kingsley, Harry, Josh and Keith. Josh and Keith, who were in their early twenties, lived on the Peartree estate. There had been no hesitation when Kingsley had broached the plan to them. They knew what some of the out-of-towners were like and had been made to feel like second-class citizens enough times to want to fight back.

‘Right,’ said Kingsley, ‘here we go: one sleeping bag each – nice and compact; one ground sheet – bugger all weight; a hi-vis jacket (won’t be needing those tonight, though); and the jewel in the crown - the T-shirt!’

Josh immediately opened out the last item, studied the message and then read it out: ‘I’m the one the Daily Message warned you about!

‘I don’t get it,’ Keith said

‘OK, Keith,’ Kingsley said. ‘You know we’re trespassing on Phil Darker’s estate. Well, he used to be the editor of that rag, a nasty piece of work, who certainly wouldn’t be supporting our cause.’

‘Right,’ Keith said.

‘And,’ Josh chipped in, ‘not that I’m bothered, like, but isn’t this – what we’re doing – against the law?’

‘Yes,’ Kingsley continued, ‘but sometimes the law is an ass – an idiot in other words - to quote some high-up guy a couple of hundred years ago.’

‘So, what’s the point of laws, then?’ Josh asked.

‘Good question,’ Harry said. ‘Go back a thousand-odd years, and the land was there for the taking for everybody. People, known as commoners, could graze their animals on it, get their wood and peat there and fish the ponds. And then William the Conqueror came along from Northern France and bagged it all. Why? To give to his knights. And they’ve never looked back. Half of England – get this – is owned by one percent of its population.’

‘Fuck me!’ Keith said

Some time ago, Harry had indicated to Kingsley he wanted to check the Swan out – under sufferance, not for pleasure, he made clear. Kingsley knew about Harry’s brief encounter with Melanie Rogers and thought that was what this was about. Harry knew she would instantly recognise him – and blank him, of course - but if he could make her feel uncomfortable just for a moment, it would be mission accompli. Why did Kingsley get the impression they were co-conspirators?

Harry got the drinks in, a pint of Harvey’s bitter for Kingsley and, as he was still controlling his alcohol intake, just the one glass of Bolney rose for himself with some marinated olives to accompany it.

The booming voice was a giveaway. It came from the saloon bar, but you could easily make it out from here, where Harry and Kingsley and the locals were. Bits and pieces of conversation drifted in. At one point, Harry discerned the words “la-di-da” and “plinkety-plonk” and realised Melanie was mocking the recital at the Rawlings. And when she spat out “riff-raff”, it was all too obvious whom that was aimed at.

Later, when Harry and Kingsley were transferring to the saloon bar, they both caught the name Darker on Melanie’s lips. Automatically, their ears pricked up. Apparently, there was going to be a gala event of some sort on Saturday week at the former newspaper editor’s estate.

Harry and Kingsley stopped in their tracks, exchanged knowing looks and clinked glasses in mid-air.

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Mike_the_Rookie
Mike_the_Rookie
About This Story
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Posted
13 Aug, 2022
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