‘They say Irene put both hands in the fire.’
Bruno doesn’t answer.
I say ‘Why would anybody burn their hands on purpose? It doesn’t make any sense.’
‘You think she’s been self-harming?’
‘I’m saying something doesn’t add up.’
Bruno perks up visibly. ‘Are you saying someone must have pushed her?’
‘The doctors are saying she’d been drinking.’
‘There were indications of intoxication.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘There was alcohol in her blood. A significant amount.’
Bruno says ‘I don’t see how Irene being drunk gives any suggestion of foul play.’
‘Apparently it’s completely out of character. She only ever drinks in moderation.’
‘You think someone forced it down her? Wouldn’t the doctors know? If there’d been some sort of brute force?’
‘I’m saying maybe someone aided and abetted her. Maybe someone got her drunk.’
Bruno laughs ‘I guess you’re never too old to suffer from power of peer pressure.’
‘I wasn’t thinking of her peer group.’
‘Ahh.’ Says Bruno. ‘I’m being slow. You think Linda Kirkby forced her grandmother to get blind drunk and put her fingers in the fire.’
‘Well it’s a theory.’
Bruno pauses for a moment, as though he’s lost in thought.
‘I must admit, she doesn’t strike me as a drinker. She always seems so self-contained. So..’
I finish his sentence for him.
‘So well put together. Exactly. That’s my point.’
‘For the love of God.’ Says Lester. ‘Will you two stop playing fucking Murder Squad and do your sodding job.’
‘We’re building a rapport with local residents.’ I say. ‘Trying to understand what makes them tick. It’s a core component of the job.’
‘You’re off on a wild goose chase, and you’re wasting fucking time. Where’s the feedback from the public consultation. Have you even logged the forms?’
I can see them now. The feedback forms. Out of the corner of my eye. Sitting on the coffee table. The one from Linda Kirkby’s living room. Faux mahogany with walnut trim. We should have done it days ago. Collated the responses. The top one’s slightly soiled. There’s a coffee cup on top.
I say ‘Me and Bruno are doing that this morning.’
Bruno nods enthusiastically. We move towards the sofa. Sink into green velour. Split the pile in two. Start leafing through the feedback with exaggerated focus.
‘So’ says Lester. ‘Out of interest. How many people mention pets?’
‘As far as I can see,’ says Bruno ‘no-one’s mentioned pets at all.’
I speed read the forms in front of me. The usual range of comments and complaints. We need a surgery, a swimming pool. And what about the wildlife? Why don’t we re-open the hospital? Why don’t we go back to where we came from and leave everything alone?
People tout for work. Bricklayers; interior designers; wildlife relocation experts; story-tellers; a specialist in feng shui. The local Arts Group are offering their expertise. A mosaic for the central square. We’ll need to cover their expenses. And a modest fee of course. The Oral History Society has over fifty hours of interviews. We can read the transcripts. In return for funding for the next five years.
Others are more enigmatic, more obtuse. One says ‘semi-skimmed only’. Another simply says ‘too square’.
No-one mentions buried pets.
‘For clarity.’ Says Lester. ‘You didn’t seek any corroboration for Irene Grover’s claims that people have been burying their pets at Macey’s Patch.’
He speaks in measured tones. Keen to make it absolutely clear. The extent of my failure. My slapdash approach.
‘We were seriously considering leaving Macey’s Patch untouched. Reducing the development area. Purely on the basis of one old woman’s ramblings. On a load of fucking bollocks that no-one thought to check. Do you have any understanding of what that would have cost the project?’
‘She said she represented the views of the community.’ I mutter weakly.
‘Well yes’ he says. ‘They always do. You should know that by now.’
‘Talking of fire’ says Lester. ‘We ought to hold a bonfire.’
He is looking out across the field. We’ve knocked down an ancient wooden lean-to. And a couple of storage sheds. No-one wants to buy the timber. It’s too old, too warped, too knotty. It’s going to cost a fortune to cart it all away. The bonfire has begun to build itself.
Bruno says ‘I’m not sure it’s allowed. Setting fire to demolition spoil.’
Lester looks disdainful. ‘It’ll be a celebration. A community event.’
He clears his throat. ‘We’re spending too much time on individual residents. It’s an inefficient process. We should be getting everyone on board.’
I say ‘There’ll still be a load of regulations. You can’t just decide to hold a public bonfire…’
‘Jesus Fucking Christ’, says Lester. ‘Am I the only fucking person in this company with any sense of vision? It’s a symbolic gesture. We need to be positioning this development as something to be proud of. Brave new beginnings. The regeneration of the town.’
‘We have to be realistic.’ I say, with a degree of trepidation. ‘They’re not going to start seeing us as saviours. We’re pulling down their listed buildings and putting houses on their field.’
‘We’re not going to pussyfoot around being all apologetic. If that’s the way you see it you can pack up and go home now.’
I’m not sure if he’s talking literally or metaphorically. If I’ve been dismissed again.
Lester carries on before I have a chance to clarify the situation.
‘Everybody loves a fire. It taps into tribal instincts.’
‘I’m not sure I’d want to delve too deeply into St Anselm’s collective psyche. The last public consultation felt like some sort of lynching. They may as well have put us in the stocks.’
‘Don’t be so defeatist.’ says Lester, as he grabs his coat. ‘It’s the biggest investment in St Anselm’s since the War.’
I say ‘Do you think he meant it? About me packing up and going home?’
‘He’s just ranting. That’s what Lester does it. I love it when he’s angry. He’s so….’ Bruno struggles to find the words.
I say ‘Do you sleep with men as well as women?’
‘Women are more straightforward. They don’t need to pay a professional to pander to their ego or listen to their problems. They’re far too chatty. They have their friends. Or their psychologists or whatever crap they have. If they pay money to a prostitute it’s because they want to fuck.’
I say ‘But do you sleep with men as well?’
‘Women are more appreciative. And better payers. Especially when they’re paying with their husband’s credit card.’
‘They make their husbands pay?’
That’s often pretty much the point.’
‘Aren’t they scared of being discovered?’
Bruno laughs. ‘There’s always a little part of them that wants their husbands to find out.’
We’re with the Parish Council. They are seeking reassurance. That homes will go to local residents. But not the ones who make a noise or leave their rubbish out all week.
That construction won’t cause flooding. Or dust or dirt or noise. That we’ll upgrade the neighbouring streets. That we can absolutely guarantee there won’t be extra traffic. That we’ll provide allotments. Not just for the new houses but plenty more as well. There’s a shortfall at the moment. A waiting list of thirty seven names.
They have ideas about street names. Suggestions from Parishioners. Their shot at immortality. Blake Buildings, Tanner Terrace, McGinty Mews. The Irene Violet Grover Hall.
I say ‘Was that one written in purple ink?’
Everyone ignores me.
‘For the last time,’ says Lester, ‘we’re not building a hall.’
We’ve been through this before. The planners want a Waitrose. The Parish wants a village hall. Waitrose wouldn’t touch St Anselm’s with a barge pole. Too small, too poor, too tinpot. It doesn’t need a village hall. It’s already got the Labour Club. The Malcolm Hodge Memorial Hall is only up the road. Both are ailing, failing, falling down. Struggling to survive.
The Councillors look hurt. As though we’ve moved the goalposts. Sprung this on them unawares.
We hurry on to Item Six. They’re concerned about the entrance. About our plans for signage. About adding to the clutter of the chaos of Risborough Road.
I say ‘We’re hoping to have access from the High Street.’
They look at me suspiciously. It’s not what’s on the drawings.
I’m playing to their prejudices. Sneaky, shifty, surreptitious.
I’m about to say. ‘We couldn’t show it at the public consultation because we didn’t want the Kirkbys to know they owned a ransom strip.’
But I’ll just confirm their fears.
I say. ‘We didn’t’ show it on the drawings because we didn’t know if we could do it. We weren’t sure that we could build a road straight over Macey’s Patch.’
It’s clear the Parish Councillors require an explanation. Something juicy. Unexploded land mines; ancient relics; pot holes; newts.
‘Someone told us,’ I say lamely ‘it’s where local people bury pets.’
The Councillors are eyeing me as though I’ve gone quite mad.
‘It turned out to be inaccurate information.’ I say. ‘Not so much inaccurate as false.’
This is one of those moments. When I should just stop talking. But no-one else jumps in to fill the gap.
I say. ‘It’s disappointing really. We could have called it Dead Dog Drive.’