Art Pact 248 - Fete and Fortune


Full of the joys of spring, the young couples danced around the fete, infuriating Preston. He had been placed at the far end of the field, the lower end where the drainage was bad and in winter a great sheet of ice covered all living things. The ice was gone now, but its malign presence lingered, the vegetation there different in character to further up the meadow. There it was grass and wildflowers and soft moss. Here there was grass, of course - the local grass was unstoppable - but mixed with it were nettles, burr-grass, and a species of foul-smelling mushroom. Once he had been placed there by the vicar, though, Preston felt no impetus to move away.

"You're looking in fine form," said Mrs. Caraller from the next stand over. She reached over her massed ranks of jams to exchange a pot of marmalade with a pot of damson, examined her work, tutted and swapped them back again.

"Fine form?"

"Yes," she said. "Healthy. In good fettle. Hale and hearty."

"Oh. Well, I suppose I'm all of those things. Much good may it do me."

"Oh dear. Are you still grieving after her?"

"Who?"

"You know..." she said, but she saw a swift frown cross his brow and looked down at her arrangement again. This time she tried shifting the marmalades to the right (her right, the customer's left), then moving the strawberries down into a wedge formation so that they might separate the marmalades from the chutneys. Preston thought that he might have called in the plum jams from the back to sweep right in a pincer movement and carry the day, but he kept his war counsel to himself. It seemed that Mrs. Caraller was unsatisfied with her manoeuvres again anyway, because she reset the display. "It's not quite right, what she's done here," she said. "But I can't quite put my finger on it."

Preston looked down at his own stall. It was leftovers. How appropriate, he thought. All of the detritus of the church year, and him. The things that no-one wanted but which the vicar thought that someone would come along and snap up, conveniently solving a problem. In the case of church Christmas cards, a storage problem. In the case of Preston, a rival. Some rival.

"It's probably not what she trained for," he said.

"Pardon?"

"Jam arranging. Probably not what she trained for all of those years."

"Evidently!" Mrs. Caraller laughed. "I suppose they don't do courses for jam arranging in those big universities. Jam arranging!" She laughed again, an uncontrollable cackling, as though it were the best joke she had ever heard. "Wait till I tell that to the ladies!"

"Don't-" he began, but he said it quietly and choked off the words. It would get back to her, of course, and somehow in the telling it would be twisted until he was mocking her. "I mean, I suppose..."

He wanted to say something that would distract Mrs. Caraller, but he could think of nothing. He stared back down at the collection again. Christmas cards that hadn't sold during December. 2011 calendars, largely useless now that it was April of that year.

"Ah, look at them," said Mrs. Caraller. She was gazing off up towards the head of the field at the maypole, where children had begun to gather. Another divisive issue. The elder parishioners had been for it as a sign of tradition and continuity, the slightly younger ones against it - something to do with paganism, the bugbear of those middle-aged buffoons - and the still younger ones neutral on the issues but enthusiastic for anything new that would take the edge off the stifling boredom of the village. Mrs. Caraller herself was one of the middle group age-wise, but she worked in the old-people's home and had absorbed enough arguments in favour of the ceremony from both her clients and her own children that she had eventually become one of the maypole's most strident advocates. "They're having so much fun."

The faint strains of music drifted across the meadow, plucking at the ears. Preston turned away to look out over the flood field and the river beyond, scratching at his nose ostentatiously so that he could subtly flick tears away from his eyes with another finger. He sneezed, snorted, then turned back to the fete.

"Do you know, there were some on the council who were going to stay away!" Mrs. Caraller told him. "Stay away, for heaven's sake! As if they were going to summon up the de-the old you know who," she corrected herself hastily.

"I didn't know that," he said.

"It's true. I heard it from Mrs. Fenniman."

"Then it must be true."

"Of cou-Oh hush, you and your sarcasm. It's the lowest form of humour, you know?"

"Really? Not puns made from the pulpit?"

Mrs. Caraller tilted her head to one side, the gesture that preceded every outburst of schadenfreude-sympathy (heart-felt sympathy being an area of her emotional landscape which she had left largely unexplored, so that it was no doubt marked on maps with the legend "here be dragons" and a picture of a grampus consoling a grieving kraken).

"Aw," she said. "There there. Remember, jealousy isn't a positive emotion. You can't project that much negativity towards the vicar without damaging yourself, you know."

Oh god, Preston thought to himself. That bloody self-awareness course. Another one of her projects which he would have supported if she'd only chosen him over the vicar. As it was, the course was not only a symbol of his failure and loss, it was the gift that kept on taking, as it had made the middle-aged women of the parish into a cadre of psychiatrist hopefuls. If there was one thing more painful than the injury the her decision and his own uselessness had inflicted on him, it was having Freud rubbed into the wound.

"It isn't jealousy," he said. "It's anger." But Mrs. Caraller was not fazed.

"Anger," she said. "Oh my lord. Anger's ever worse! You'll do yourself a permanent mischief if you stay angry with her."

"Really. Do tell."

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