Saturday, November 4, 2017

 

JONATHON DE MOUNTFORD circled the bonfire, unable to keep his grin at bay. “This is going to be great.” The pile of wood and other combustible items had been growing steadily since before Halloween, after he’d announced a Bonfire Night party to be held at the manor. Every day had seen more added to its height, and he’d watched its progress with glee. “Only six hours to go!” He came to a halt at Mike’s side, admiring the view.

“You’re nothing but a big kid at heart, aren’t you?” Mike Tattersall gave him a playful nudge with his elbow. “Look at you, all excited about setting fire to a pile of… crap.”

Jonathon narrowed his gaze. “Crap? Crap?” He caught the twinkle in Mike’s eye. “Don’t give me that. You’re just as big a kid. I saw you drooling over the list of fireworks.” He gave Mike a smug smile. “And don’t tell me you were merely checking in the interests of public safety. That was you, wasn’t it? ‘Ooh, Catherine wheels! Cool.’”

Mike aimed a mock glare in his direction. “Which only goes to confirm my suspicions. You have ears like a shit-house rat.

Jonathon let out an exaggerated sigh. “I guess the honeymoon is definitely over.”

Mike snorted. “Sweetheart, the honeymoon was over the first morning you rolled onto your side, snuggled up against me, and farted.”

Jonathon gave him the sweetest smile he could muster. “How does the saying go? ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’? Because that’s all I was doing.

Mike held up his hands. “Okay, okay, so we’re both as bad as the other.” He gazed at the towering pile. “It’s very impressive. I can’t believe how much stuff people have brought.”

It had been Jonathon’s idea to provide the firework display, but rather than make it a lord-of-the-manor thing, he’d wanted to involve the whole village. Between Mike (in the pub), Rachel Meadow (in her tea shop), and Mike’s sister, Sue (everywhere else), they’d gotten word out that villagers were to bring the components of the bonfire. It began as a trickle but had soon swelled into a steady stream of people carrying whatever they could lay their hands on.

Only, it hadn’t stopped there. Paul Drake, a local pig farmer, announced that he was going to supply a hog roast. Rachel came up with the idea of providing tea, coffee, and hot chocolate. Mike was planning a beer and mulled wine stall, and the Women’s Institute stepped in to say they’d provide baked potatoes, hot dogs, and burgers. The Merrychurch brass band agreeing to play was the icing on the cake.

It was going to be a fantastic event, and Jonathon couldn’t wait. The bonfire had surpassed his initial expectations, and it warmed his heart to see the village pulling together. Everything was in place to make it an evening to remember.

“At least the rain held off,” Jonathon commented. There had been indications that a shower was possible, but the skies remained clear. “Not that it would have mattered. We’d simply have moved the event to tomorrow night.”

Mike coughed. “Er, no, we couldn’t. Remember? We’d have had all the ladies on the Parish Council on our backs. Why do you think I suggested holding it on the fourth instead of the fifth?”

“I did wonder about that.” Mike had assured him this was the way it had to be, and Jonathon had acquiesced.

“It’s always been this way. Celebrating Guy Fawkes’ Night on a Sunday is generally frowned upon. Seeing as we are remembering a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament.” Mike affected a cut-glass accent. “Not quite the done thing, eh?”

Jonathon sighed. “I wouldn’t know. I never went to bonfire parties when I was younger.” He gazed around the grounds. “Maybe this is my way of making up for what I missed.”

“Then we’re gonna make this one memorable. Did I tell you?” Mike grinned. “Sue is doing a bobbing-for-apples stand with Andrew. That should be a laugh. And Doris from the village shop is doing a raffle, all proceeds going to charity. She says she’s been asking for donations for the last week, and so far people have been really generous. Doris did want me to remind you. Apparently you’re contributing a grand prize.”

Jonathon nodded. “I’ve been putting together a hamper. It’s full of local produce, including a lot of fresh meat from the farms on the estate. I spent three days last week going around and asking if local businesses wanted to contribute. I’m adding a couple of bottles of champagne and those handmade chocolates I picked up in London, to make it a bit special. By the time I’m finished, there won’t be room to add a chocolate drop.” He peered at Mike. “Is everything ready for your stall?”

“Right down to the oranges and cinnamon sticks for the mulled wine. The pub won’t be open tonight. I don’t see the point—everyone will be here.”

Jonathon was keeping his fingers crossed. The summer fete had been organized by Melinda Talbot, the vicar’s wife, but this was his baby, the first event he’d arranged in the village, and he wanted it to be a success. Slowly but surely, he was getting to know the villagers, but there were still so many he hadn’t met yet, including his own tenants. Hardly surprising, seeing as he’d not been in the village all that long. That was another reason for holding the bonfire party—a chance to get to know more of Merrychurch’s inhabitants.

It’ll be fine. As long as we don’t set fire to anyone.

 

 

“THAT GUY Fawkes is amazing,” Melinda exclaimed, her thin, gloved hands wrapped around a polystyrene cup of mulled wine. “I must admit, it made my heart jump when they threw it onto the bonfire. It’s so realistic.”

“Do you think the event is a success?” Jonathon peered anxiously around them. With twenty or so minutes to go until the fireworks began at nine o’clock, it seemed like most of the village had turned out. Graham Billings, the local constable, had roped off the bonfire so no one could get too close, and had checked it several times before Jonathon lit it, to make sure no animals had gotten into it. He was presently engaged in strolling around its perimeter, giving stern glances at kids who were trying to set off fireworks on their own. Everyone was standing around the blaze, talking and laughing, their faces glowing in the firelight.

Melinda patted his arm. “Relax, Jonathon. You’ve done really well, especially considering how little time you’ve had to pull this all together.” She laid her hand on his cheek. “Dominic would be very proud of you, to see you settling in like this.”

That remark was enough to send warmth surging through him. The cheers that had filled the air when he’d lit the bonfire had been gratifying.

The Merrychurch brass band launched into “Light My Fire,” and everyone around them laughed and applauded enthusiastically. They’d already played “Fire” by Arthur Brown, and “Play with Fire” by the Rolling Stones. Someone in the band obviously had a sense of humor. Not only that, but it showed a lot of commitment: there hadn’t been all that much time to learn the pieces.

Jonathon glanced around. “Where’s Lloyd? Didn’t he come with you?”

Melinda sighed. “He sends his apologies, but he has to finish his sermon. And then there’s Jinx. That cat is scared to death every Bonfire Night. I looked in on Lloyd before I came out this evening, and Jinx was tucked in behind him on his chair. It can’t have been comfortable, but Lloyd said he didn’t have the heart to move him.”

Mike appeared at Jonathon’s side, bringing him a cup of mulled wine. “No luck finding him a curate?”

Melinda shook her head. “It appears no one wants to be the curate of a small village where nothing happens.”

Mike chuckled. “Merrychurch is hardly that, especially after this summer.”

Melinda glared at him. “Do not remind me, please. The number of people who stop me in the street—almost three months later, mind you—and ask if I’m sure I had no inkling that Sebastian was capable of murder….” She shivered.

Jonathon put his arm around her. “Ignore them. None of us had any idea, okay? How could we?”

Melinda gave him a grateful smile. “Not exactly an auspicious start to your life in the village.”

Jonathon was doing his best to put it behind him, but living at the manor house wasn’t easy. There were so many memories of Dominic. Although the study was a beautiful room, Jonathon hardly ever went in there. The marble would always bear the stain of his uncle’s blood. Instead, he’d decided to live mainly in the west wing, where he’d chosen a large room to act as a photography studio, and was focusing his energies on getting it ready to use.

“This was a wonderful idea.”

The loud voice plucked Jonathon from his thoughts and dropped him back into the present. A small crowd of people had gathered around him, Mike, and Melinda, but some of them were strangers to him. He recognized the speaker instantly, a distinguished-looking man in his forties.

“Thank you—” Jonathon cleared his throat. “Do I address you as Mr. Mayor?”

The mayor laughed. “That would be fine if this was a public engagement. But tonight I’m just John Barton, enjoying the village bonfire with my family.” He inclined his head to the well-dressed woman on his right arm. “Have you met my wife, Debra? And this is our son, Jason.”

Jonathon shook hands with Debra. “I’m pleased to meet you.” He gave Jason a nod. The young man had to be in his late teens, a handsome boy with the most beautiful green eyes.

To Jonathon’s surprise, Jason grasped his hand and shook it enthusiastically. “I’ve got your books. I think your photos are so cool.”

“Thank you.” It didn’t matter how many times Jonathon heard remarks like that. The result was always the same: his face grew hot and he didn’t know what to say next.

“Ay-up mi-duck.” An elderly woman with a lined face and bright blue eyes addressed Jason with a wide smile. “Lookin’ more ’andsome every time I see ya. Just like your dad.”

Jason smiled politely. “Good evening, Mrs. Teedle.”

Beside him, his mother stiffened momentarily but quickly recovered and gave Mrs. Teedle a polite nod, her expression impassive. Around Jonathon, others reacted similarly.

Jonathon might not have known some of the vocabulary, but there was an inflection to her voice that he recognized immediately. “I don’t think we’ve met.” He held out his hand. “Jonathon de Mountford.”

“An’ like Jason said, I’m Mrs. Teedle.” She took his hand, cackling. “Allreet. Don’t think tha’s met all the tenants yet.”

He cocked his head to one side. “Perhaps not, but it’s obvious you’ve spent time in Australia.”

She hooted with laughter. “Bless ya, duck. Thirty years I lived there. Don’t exactly sound like a native, though, do I?”

He laughed. “Not really. It’s just now and then, the way your voice rises in places….”

“I’ve been back twenty years, but yeah, I can still hear it now and again. Roots win out in the end. I’ve never managed to shift me accent.” She inclined her head toward the lower part of the field, where the fireworks had been set up. “What time is kickoff? ’Cos I want to be out of here before then.”

Jonathon frowned. “Oh. But the fireworks are the best part.”

Mrs. Teedle shook her head. “Not for me, mi-duck.” She lifted a wrinkled hand to gently pull back her gray-and-white hair, revealing her ear. “One Bonfire Night when I were a kid, a Roman candle took off when it should’ve stayed put and took part of me ear with it.”

Jonathon peered closely. The ear had a pointed look to it. “I’m sorry.”

She shrugged as she removed her hand. “It were a long time ago. An’ to this day, I’m still not that keen on fireworks. This hasn’t bothered me for many a year. I used to tell people I was Mr. Spock’s understudy.” She grinned, the lines deepening around her eyes.

Mike snickered. “Have you bought a raffle ticket yet, Mrs. Teedle? There are some great prizes.”

Mrs. Teedle let out another hoot of laughter. “Bless ya, mi-duck, that’s why I came. I’ve donated some of me jams as one of the prizes.” She peered intently at Jonathon. “But seeing as you’re me landlord, I guess it would be polite to buy a ticket. Besides, I saw the champagne bottles just now, stickin’ out of that hamper. Always was partial to a bit of bubbly.”

Mike dug out the envelope containing the tickets from his jacket pocket. “I’ve only got a couple left anyway. You never know—one could be the winning ticket.”

Mrs. Teedle fished in her pocket and brought out a pound coin. “There ya go. Me last bit of change.” She peered at the pink ticket. “Well, gerra move-on an’ write me name on your copy. I’m not gonna ’ang about ’ere. I may be British born and bred, but these old bones have got a bit nesh in me old age. I’m off to my warm bed.”

Mike scribbled her name on the duplicate ticket. “All done. Good luck.”

Mrs. Teedle regarded him with bright eyes. “I’ve always believed you make your own luck.” Her grin widened. “An’ I’ve always been a jammy sod.” She acknowledged Jonathon with a brief nod. “Pleased to meet the lord of the manor at last. Good night, ladies an’ gents.” And with that, she shuffled away from the small gathering.

Jonathon had to smile. “Is she what you’d call a village character?” Mrs. Teedle was maybe in her seventies or eighties, dressed in black, but she moved fairly sprightly for her age.

Melinda cleared her throat. “That’s one way of describing her. In less charitable times, she’d have been called the village witch.”

He blinked. “Seriously?”

“Witch is right.” A woman next to Melinda stared after Mrs. Teedle with her eyes narrowed to slits. “All those potions of hers… you don’t know what you’re getting half the time.” She tossed back a mane of long blond hair.

The man next to her rolled his eyes. “For God’s sake, Dawn, let it drop, will you? It’s been three years.”

Dawn glared at him. “Yeah? And where would I be now if she hadn’t stuck her oar in?”

“You don’t know that,” the man said softly. He pulled gently on her arm. “Come on. I’ll buy you another roast pork sandwich.”

Grumbling, she allowed him to lead her toward Paul Drake’s hog roast stand.

Jonathon’s head was still reeling. “But… she’s not really a witch… is she?”

Jason laughed. “She’s this old biddy who lives in a cottage at the edge of the forest. Sure, you hear lots of stories about her, but I’ve known her all my life. People are always gonna have shit to say about someone, right? Especially someone who’s a bit mysterious and minds their own business.”

His father gazed at him with affection. “And some people always see the good in others.

Jason’s face flushed, and he coughed. “Is it time for fireworks yet?”

Jonathon laughed. “I think that was a hint.” He addressed those people standing around him. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to go press a switch.”

“And I’m gonna go with him to make sure he doesn’t blow himself up,” Mike added with a wink. That got a laugh from the small crowd.

“I’ll get Graham to tell everyone,” Melinda called out as they walked toward the bottom of the field, where a control box had been set up. Everything would begin with the press of one button.

When they got there, Jonathon paused and looked back. The facade of the manor house was lit by several lanterns, which cast eerie shadows over the stone frontage. The bonfire still burned, its flames reaching high into the sky. It would be a few hours before it would extinguish itself.

Mike nudged him. “Ready to set fire to about a thousand pounds-worth of fireworks?”

Jonathon chuckled. “To get everyone together like this, virtually the whole village? It was worth every penny.” He stood still, listening to Graham’s strident announcement via a megaphone. Suddenly the air was filled with voices as the countdown began.

“Five… four… three… two… one!”

And with that, Jonathon pressed the switch, then hurried back up the field to get a better view, accompanied by a chorus of oohs and aahs. The night sky was filled with showers of colored light, set against a soundtrack of whizzes, cracks, whistles, and bangs. Jonathon watched the display with joy, Mike’s hand curled around his.

Yeah. Worth every penny.