It was a jest, OK?
Nothing to set the world on fire, or even to cause such a fuss.
A joke, a merry quip, nothing more, and certainly no malice aforethought.
Right. Then why did I get into so much trouble?
In those far off days when the world was young and I guarded the peace in the village of Castle Hedingham, I lived in the police house. It was at the top end of the village, with a huge Congregational chapel on the one side, a small alley on the other, and big old houses either side of the road.
The police house and station were at the front, and the buildings behind contained a court room (complete with magistrates’ parlour), a couple of cells, and various storerooms and lavatories. There was also a separate coach house and stables with a hay loft above. Built with Edwardian grandeur, it all sat behind iron railings and high walls as if expecting to be besieged by mobs of armed peasantry on a regular basis.
Opening onto a courtyard at the side were two large wooden doors painted regulation dark blue. They were wide enough to accommodate a small stage coach and they always remained open because they were too bloody heavy to close. At the end of the alley was another larger and much older building which housed a rare and wonderful thing: a silk mill.
This silk mill was as rare as an extremely rare thing because it produced wonderful silks using ancient Jacquard looms. Devere Mill was a gem, but a small operation which earned a few extra shillings by having parties of interested people shown around. Normally these were enthusiasts for this ancient craft; clubs, weaving circles, and similar. This was all very fine and we were used to small groups of gents and ladies traipsing up the lane in search of the mill. Many would peer in and, seeing police cars and the like, move on with barely a shudder.
One fine day, however, there came a whole coach load of visitors. Dozens of ladies in their middle years and upward in Sunday best coats or two-piece suits—an entire regiment of beige and tweed. They had two things in common (although ‘common’ was not a word one would utter in their presence): They all wore hats and they all carried bloody great handbags. It was like looking at dozens of queen mothers, and the nearer they got the more frightening they appeared. Over them hung a miasma of lavender perfume and face powder. Their gimlet eyes took in their surroundings as they chattered and hissed to each other in a disapproving sussurration.
I have been scared by many things in my time as a copper. Big blokes with sticks, drunks swinging bottles like Indian clubs, Glaswegians, squaddies, and the woman who laid me out with a huge cast iron frying pan filled with scalding fat and ‘saus and fried slice.’ But this lot truly terrified me. I knew that if one, just one of them, told me to ‘go and clean up your room, you dirty boy,’ I would do it. A ‘smarten yourself up’ would have had me quivering. They were a composite embodiment of the universal mother-in-law. We all know the female of the species is more deadly than the male, and this battalion of battle axes was pure poison.
A particularly fierce woman in tweeds was obviously in charge. Reminding me of a prison warder in drag, she had a face like a bulldog and looked as if concrete would melt in her mouth. I was standing in the yard—off duty, old shirt, pipe on—washing down my police mini van.
‘Where is it?’, she snarled at me, as the throng of ladies filled up the alley.
Some were peering into the police yard hoping, perhaps, to witness a birching or a miscreant in chains. Others looked as if they were gathering for the charge, handbags at the ready.
‘Where’s what?’, asked I, being as bloody awkward as I could and still remain almost polite.
‘The silk mill, you fool’, she snapped.
‘Top of the lane, ma’am’, I said, ‘you can’t miss it’.
‘Our coach is parked by the chapel. I trust there is no problem with that!’
There wasn’t (the road was wide enough) but to prove a point I said I would put a traffic cone out in the road to warn motorists. She nodded imperiously, returned to her troops, and led them at a brisk pace up the lane to the mill.
As the more vigorous and fit moved off, a rear party was left behind that seemed to be made up of the sort of ladies who always made the tea. They had none of the implacable arrogance shown by the others, were a touch friendlier, and milled about like bleating sheep as they started their way up the lane.
One old dear who looked like a prune covered in pink face powder and wore what appeared to me to be a large floral tea cosy on her head stayed behind and, venturing closer, told me they were from the [blank] Townswomen’s Guild.
Yes, dear reader, after all these years I’m still frightened of being handbagged, so will I vouchsafe to you where they came from? Will I, buggery!
She said they had booked lunch at the Bell Inn in the market square for after their tour of the mill and would it be all right if the coach stayed where it was so they could all have a wander around our pretty village? She flourished a guide book to demonstrate her credentials.
She was as deaf as a post in spite of a huge hearing aid that hung ‘round her neck and was connected to wires that disappeared under her amazing head gear. I didn’t know whether to talk into the microphone or the hat; in the end I just shouted.
Now, at that time there were major sewer and water works being carried out all through the village. Huge excavations rendered many of the roads impassable to vehicles, and there were narrow footpaths for pedestrian traffic, many of which were girded only by flimsy barriers with handrails, and here and there temporary covers of thick plywood had been put down where the digging had undermined the old paving slabs. These were not your usual road works; they were deep and dark and from them came the smell of ancient sins and sewage.
So I told this lady in her big hat that it would be fine, but to mind how they went because of all the massive disruption that was in progress.
‘What’s been going on then?’, she asked me, her whole expression begging for some malicious gossip.
It was clear she wanted more than just ‘holes in the road’. She was the sort who craved the excitement that only the more salacious ‘red top’ newspapers could give, or those whispered denouncements made by like-minded busybodies over endless cups of tea. She was one of those women who live behind twitching curtains.
‘Well’ I said, ‘under our village, years and years ago when the castle owned all the land hereabouts, there were salt mines. The rock salt was dug out for ages and now it turns out there are huge empty caverns under part of the village which none of us knew about. Until the bus, that is.’
Her shocked expression showed me she was hooked.
‘What bus?’, she gasped.
‘The one that disappeared into a girt great hole in the market square a few weeks ago’, I replied. ‘That caused a stir, I can tell you. We’ve had any number of learned blokes poking about and banging long poles into the ground all over the place. Did one here’, I said, pointing to a slight indentation to the constabulary tarmac in the yard. ‘But we’re all right; it’s in the old part that the trouble lies. That’s why they’re digging it all up, so they can fill in the caverns with concrete. Going to take tons and tons of it, I’m told.’
She stared at me, horror-struck.
‘Is is safe?’ she asked, her eyes so wide with astonishment that her face powder cracked.
‘Oh, providing you keep on the footpaths you should be fine. Stay as near the buildings as you can, though. These have been up for centuries and there’s no sign of any subsidence. They knew what they were doing when they built them.’
She scurried off to catch the others up, muttering as she went, her hat bobbing and her handbag swinging.
I went back to cleaning the van and thought no more about it.
An hour or so later I was on duty and took my old bike out to give my uniform an airing in the bright sun of a summer’s day. Cycling ‘round the village was a joy almost regardless of the weather. You got to see what was going on, and it made it easy to stop and have a natter, or just coast by, showing the flag. Castle Hedingham is one of the prettiest villages in Essex, with ancient timbered houses leaning like old friends over the roads. Narrow lanes lead to the castle itself, and the old market square is a mixture of architectural styles. Despite the huge chasms in some of the roads, it was a delight.
It was a delight, that is, until I saw some of the Townswoman’s Guild ladies walking, or rather creeping, along part of a road that had excavations. They were not just keeping to the footpaths, but edging along sideways with their backs against the wall, for all the world like some moving frieze from an Egyptian tomb.
Oh shit. That yarn I had spun in the courtyard. They had only bloody well believed it! I turned my bike around and beat a hasty retreat. I cycled furiously back to the nick and grabbed the van after signing myself on as patrolling Foxearth, which was as far away from Hedingham as I could go and still be in my manor.
There were nevertheless repercussions, of course.
One or three kindly locals, having encountered these poor old dears, put their minds at rest as to the dangers of vast chasms below the village. When the ladies explained it was the ‘local bobby’ who had warned them, a weary sigh and a knowing smile told them all they needed to know.
Thus it was that ‘letters were writ’ from the chairperson, the hon-secretary, and various angry ladies. But the real killer was from a London solicitor, the son-in-law of one of the membership. Eventually all the letters ended up on the assistant chief constable’s desk.
He was not amused.
I was called to headquarters to explain myself.
I stood in front of the great man’s desk, on the carpet both figuratively and literally, and told him there must have been a misunderstanding, I thought he was going to lean over his desk and kill me.
‘MISUNDERSTANDING, you fucking idiot?, he shouted. ‘Some fucking misunderstanding that has a whole party of elderly women in terror of their lives on what was supposed to be a nice quiet day out in a country village! I have letters here telling me that, not only was their day ruined, but one Mrs Elves suffered nervous palpitations that have not yet ceased, and the coach had to make three extra stops on the way back because some of the ladies’ anxiety affected their bladder control. Just what, in God’s name, did you tell them?’
I stood there at the attention, my arse clenched in terror.
‘Sir, one of the party asked about the road works and I told her that the footpaths were safe but to mind in case they were slippery. Then, sir, I recommended they have a look at the castle, which is our biggest tourist attraction and full of history.’
‘And the fucking CAVERNS?’
‘Well, sir, that might have been because I quoted a bit of poetry to the old darling, just to amuse her like.’
‘What are you fucking talking about, Pearson?’
‘You see, sir, I told her about our lovely historic castle and quoted a bit of Coleridge to go with it.”
‘You did what?’ he snarled.
‘Just this, sir, it’s a favourite of mine:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Thing is sir, she was deaf as a post, so perhaps she only heard part of it.’
I stood mute, my eyes focused somewhere over his left shoulder, rigid, not a muscle moving.
An abject apology was written, cunningly absolving the force as a whole and leaving my head alone on the block. But the Guild ladies’ deafness and penchant for rumour mongering must have touched a cord amongst the ‘committee’ because no further action was taken. At least, not by them.
When the Schools Liaison Officer suffered yet another nervous breakdown, however, I was told to fill in until he was better. As my inspector told me, ‘With your love of poetry, lad, you should go down a storm. Give ‘em a bit of yer Gunga Din while they’re lobbing dog shit at yer’.
I did, and so did the yobs of the local comprehensive.
I learned a vital lesson that day; one I have never forgotten:Never underestimate little old ladies in big hats!