Slurry Chapter 2

No Smoke

I smelt it before I saw it. It permeated the damp March air as I ate my luxury muesli but I’d just thought it was a bonfire burning. I carried on reading the Millchesterford Mercury. I say reading, but this is an exaggeration for the local rag, which regurgitates press releases, includes adverts in the editorial and prides itself on its grasp of clichés. Nevertheless it was required material for trivial conversations at the surgery and I had a morbid fascination with the obituaries which, to me, meant more orphaned pets. But what really caught my eye was the large photograph which accompanied the main story, the opening of the village hall. There I was, grinning, and near to me, in the front row, was that stunning girl that I’d noted with some approval but didn’t recognise as a local. I was studying her in some detail when I was interrupted by Eric the Milk.
“It’s still smouldering but there’s not much left. Could have been electrical I suppose but I’d put my money on arson.”
“What’s smouldering, Eric?”
I folded the paper and slid it under the table.
“The Parish Hall, what’s left of it that is.”
“Why would anyone want to do that?”
“Ah, you’d be surprised. There are several people with grudges you know. They go back years. Take that Lucas. His dad was refused permission to hire the hall for his silver wedding because his dad’s dad hadn’t paid a bill fifteen years before. Some people never forget and never forgive.”

It did look dreadful. All that was left of the new roof were a few badly charred rafters. Outside was strewn with detritus in black, oily pools of water. For some inexplicable reason the entrance hall stood virtually untouched and I could see a pristine fire extinguisher on the wall.
The Reverend Massey was standing in the car park, in a fawn trench coat, talking to a fire brigade officer.
“Hello Mark. Dreadful business, dreadful business. All that work; up in smoke. Gone, all gone.”
“I’m very sorry vicar. Is it insured?”
“I think so but that’s not the point. It will be out of commission for months, possibly years. They think it was arson, you know?”
“How do they know?”
“They’ve found traces of an accelerant.”
“Accelerant?”
“That’s what the officer called it. I think it just means petrol or something like that.”
“But who’d want to burn down our lovely parish hall?”

I heard the clatter of the bottles and a cheerful if rather tuneless whistle. Eric the Milk always collected his money on a Friday although he rarely found me at home and usually ended up getting a belated cheque stuck in a milk bottle. But I’d got the day off and I was luxuriating in surplus time. Well, what seemed like surplus until I reviewed the list of tasks undone which taunted me with its obduracy and length whenever I let it sneak into my consciousness. It was great feeling the whole day stretch ahead of me and I loved pottering around my two-up, two-down stone cottage with lean-to kitchen and sunroom overlooking fields and looming moorland. When I say pottering I don’t mean cleaning, just sort of moving things about and making lists.

“Grand day, Mark,” he said putting his ginger locks around the stable door of the kitchen.
It wasn’t but that was Eric. If it was pouring down buckets it was “What the garden needed”. If it was freezing it was “A good job because it stops all those pests over wintering and eating my veg”.
“Well it’s good for me Eric, I’ve got the day off. Fancy a drink?”
I’d just made a pot of finest Italian Arabica, the beans ground by my own fair hand and the wonderful smell filled the kitchen.
“I’d love a cup of tea, Mark, thanks.”
We sat at the scrubbed pine table and he proceeded to load four heaped teaspoons of sugar into his mug of dark brown brew. He’d not an ounce of fat on his wiry frame but I guess being a milk man was pretty energetic.
“Rum business that burning down the Parish Hall,” I offered as my opening gambit.
He looked out of the window, his face a study of concentration, as if weighing his words very carefully.
“Well, yes and no.”
I paused for him to go on but he just did a bit more word weighing.
“How do you mean?”
“Some people were kind of expecting it.”
“Go on?”
“There are a lot of people around here with very long memories and grudges that’d make milk turn,” he paused, staring into far space, “Anyway up, you going to watch Town tomorrow?”
“Who’re they playing?”
“Who’re they playing? Only Quesley bleedin’ Rovers in the second-round- proper.”
“To be honest, I’m not that mad keen on footie. Anyhow, so who do you think might have been involved?”
“No names no pack drill. Have you ever heard the story about William Dodds the Parish Clerk?”
“No, before my time, Joan Barnes has been parish clerk ever since I’ve been around these parts.”
“William was a fine chap. Retired Water Board engineer. Didn’t like people getting away with things. Not paying that sort of thing. He was a stickler he was. Cost him though. Cost him dear that did.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well he’s dead. He wasn’t a young man but fit as a fiddle. Until that is…”
“Go on.”
“He suddenly got the convulsions, the shakes. He couldn’t control himself. He’d been a charming old buffer but he became very excitable and aggressive.”
“That’s odd.”
“Well, there’s the rub. They didn’t know what the hell it was. Ancient Sam reckoned it reminded him of people who’d been gassed in the war.”
“So what was it then?”
“Not natural causes that’s for sure. But they never pinned it down. Old Doc Maitland said he thought it was sheep dip poisoning. But he’d never kept sheep. Never went near them. So you see what I mean about grudges.”
“What deliberate?”
“Well he wouldn’t have been dipping himself would he?”
“Suppose not, strange.”
“Someone who keeps sheep might know something about it I reckon.”
He got up and tapped his nose conspiratorially and strode off down the path whistling the same tuneless tune.

I was familiar with the effects of sheep dip through my job. A nasty brew of organo-phosphate that ironically the government had insisted farmers use to control parasites in sheep. Sheep being the host of choice for battalions of ghastly ticks and mites. In chemical terms sheep dip is very close to sarin, the deadly chemical used by the cult group in Japan to slaughter innocent commuters on the Tokyo metro. A lot of sheep farmers got careless and developed symptoms similar to William Dodds, but they all said he’d never been near a sheep in his life.

I reflected that while I’d got my beautiful ‘Honeycomb Cottage’ and it actually had a rambling rose around the door, albeit rampant with mildew, the countryside was not all sweetness and light. That whilst there were plenty of birds tweeting and the meadows were full of buttercups, there were still people dying in unexplained ways and buildings being torched. It wasn’t quite the Windsor Farm Estate but I wondered whether the difference was perhaps a bit more cosmetic than I’d realised.

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