Slurry Chapter 1

Village People

My dad died badly… I was just fourteen. It traumatised me but I’d known him just long enough to leave me with that sliver of hope I could break out of the cycle of poverty and under-achievement that traced back like a scar through my forefathers. I lost Mum too because she just gave up and turned her life outside-in. An inconsequential shell of Mum just continued to exist. Dad was a miner and his dad had been a miner and probably his dad too, but he’d still wanted me to ‘go away to college’. He was just forty three when he lost the unequal struggle with pneumoconiosis, rattling away in an armchair, connected to an oxygen cylinder. A compensation claim was already in the pipeline and my mum was awarded £6,763, which, in accordance with his wishes, had been put into a special account to support me through ‘college’. I knew that I would not be able to rebel against a dead father and the only way I could ever get close to him again would be to fulfil his dream.

We’d been re-housed when I was a baby, to the Windsor Farm Estate from our two-up two-down, outside toilet, terrace which was scheduled for the bulldozer. I was told that it was called the Windsor after the Mayor had invited our Queen to open the estate and a top flunkey had written back to say that although Her Majesty couldn’t make it she hoped that the new estate would be a great success. You didn’t get popular on our burnt-out-car estate by swotting or passing exams, so I played a double game – scoring points with my peers by acting like a knob-head whilst secretly studying hard. As far as I knew I would be the only person ever from the Windsor Farm Estate to go to university and I certainly didn’t want to come back. I wanted to be a vet, like on TV, and live in a cottage, with roses around the door, surrounded by tranquil countryside, full of well-intentioned neighbours. Birdsong and buttercups not busted noses and blues and twos.

I’m Markus Marley. Admittedly Markus was not a common name on the Estate but my dad had seen this film, I think it was about Julius Caesar. Anyway most people now call me Mark. I’m a vet and I’ve been practising around the parish of Amberlea for nearly seven years, so, of course, I’m still an in-comer. My business partner, Bill Yates, has been here since they invented cows and was born on a farm near here. He now lived in Pondley Mill. They’d their own vet in Pondley, John Brooke, who helped us out with the out of hours work. Bill had explained to me that if you lived where you worked then everybody expected a free consultation in the pub, shop or even church. He was right. I didn’t go to church very often, just matches and dispatches. It had been at a funeral that I’d been asked in a stage whisper by a mourner in the row behind to diagnose what was wrong with a poorly goldfish.

We do look after domestic pets but mainly we deal with horses and farm animals. There are more horses than people around here; possibly more horses than cows. And the farmers, well; they’re a rum bunch of characters. Amberlea Valley is a mystical place, rolling hills, the higher parts of which are covered in heather drizzled with sheep. The lower slopes are mixed arable and dairy farming, dotted with ancient woodlands. You don’t get many people to the acre here, just one biggish village, a scattering of smaller settlements and three pubs. Big shopping requires a trip down the by-pass to Millchesterford.

It was the first time I’d lived anywhere like it and I needed to be accepted. When Bill invited me to go fishing I jumped at the chance and bought some basic kit. However, it didn’t take long to realise that you don’t actually meet anyone fishing. Talking of any kind is frowned upon and it seems to consist mainly of sitting on your own watching the, admittedly beautiful, Amberlea River roll on by. Tranquil waters tinkling across the rocks. But it was not for me, so I reverted to frequenting the pubs which were the real social ponds in the valley. I was determined to blast through the glass ceiling that held back everybody that couldn’t demonstrate several generations of lineage within the valley and deeply ingrained muck in their fingernails.

The Parish Hall was the other great centre of local life. The grand re-opening had recently been officiated over by Lady Smuthers who’d been the oldest person in the village since anybody could remember. Her thin reedy voice tremored its way through her speech as she trembled bravely on her walking frame. The Parish Hall looked magnificent. A fine new building already imbued with the sweat of the try-to-keep-fit club and the stale milk of the crèche, Kidology. I’m not a great fan of the lottery but it’d been their grant that had made it possible. Afterwards a man in an ill-fitting, brown Oxfam-suit cajoled us into a happy band gathered around Lady Smuthers and took photographs.

One of these nights, in my favourite of the pubs, the Black Sheep, I’d been included in the chat around the bar.
“It’ll never catch on.”
“Well, you can say what you like but my wife’s got two already!”
“My round. Do you want another Mark?”
It was Jim Weatherby, the retired head teacher of Ambover school, who was most famous for telling you whether your car number plate was a prime number or not. Jim was a lumpy man with the most luxuriant nasal hair I’d ever seen. He wore a chocolate brown cord jacket, something I’d never come across in real life before.
“Thanks, Jim, same again.”
The round bought, Jim raised his glass.
“Here’s to a life of a very merry singleton.”
He went on to relate at great length the shortcomings, and they were multiple, of his ex-wife. I sensed a topic on continuous loop and made my apologies.
“Before you go Mark, I’ve been meaning to ask you. Why don’t you give our drama group a try?”
“I’m not sure…lots of commitments…on call, that sort of thing…”
“But it’s great fun and we desperately need young men like you.”
“Well, tell me when it is and I’ll try and come along.” I knew I didn’t sound very convincing.

But that February, to pass the long dark evenings, I did end up going to the drama club, which met every Wednesday evening in the Parish Hall. It was a group full of interesting characters and being the youngest member by a margin gave me the chance to pick and choose male leads. Jim Weatherby was in charge but his ex-wife was another member of the group, providing a dramatic tension to every social situation. No sooner had I arrived than they were sparring.
“You’re too old to play Jacqueline,” he would say even if Jacqueline was someone’s granny. It was also where I met Mandy Parker, a teacher at Ambover Church of England primary school, who, as the second youngest member of the group, was always cast as the female lead.

But it was the Reverend Massey that I found most intriguing. The Reverend Donald Massey was vicar of the parish church, St Bartholomew’s. Whatever the play or pantomime the Reverend would end up in a frock. If the play had no suitable character he would invent one and persuade Jim to include her. Consequently I was more used to seeing the vicar in a wig and dress than in his preaching kit. And he took it very seriously; depilated and powdered he would spend hours in front of the mirror with an impressive arsenal of mascara, eyeliner and lipsticks.

Anyway, I will get on with what, by any standards, is a curious tale.

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