Savidge didn’t start the fight, at least not directly. The first sputtering fuse had actually been lit by a sozzled member of the late Denise Hatman-Temples’ Agnes Crabbe Society suggesting to an equally intoxicated member of the equally late Gaynor Nithercott’s Agnes Crabbe Book Club that the latter was responsible for the death of the former.
“Why was she still driving?” snapped the lady from the Agnes Crabbe Society. “She was nearly blind for goodness’ sake.”
“Her eyesight was obviously good enough for the DVLA”, said the lady from the Agnes Crabbe Book Club.
“Then how could she possibly not have seen the car in front of her?” said Society.
“It was dark. And raining. Maybe your dithery Hatman-Temples woman hadn’t turned her lights on”, snapped Book Club.
“Oh, now you’re just clutching at straws”, said Society. “She was clearly a menace to other road users.”
“You can’t say that”, said Book Club. “That’s libel that is.”
“You can’t libel the dead”, said Society. “Any fool knows that. It would be slander, not libel. At least know the difference between torts before you make silly accusations.”
“Silly accusations? It was you who said that Miss Nithercott caused the accident,” said Book Club. “And that is slander. I’ve a good mind to report you to the police.”
“Fine with me”, said Society. “I’m sure a proper investigation will prove that your Nithercott woman killed Mrs Hatman-Temples as surely as if she’d plunged a dagger into her heart.”
“You take that back!”
“Take it back you old sow!”
“I will not!”
It was at this moment that Savidge chose unwisely to intervene. “Ladies! Ladies!” he said from the serving hatch of his van. “Can’t you go somewhere else and argue? You’re upsetting my customers.”
“We are your customers!” said Society.
“Not if you don’t buy anything you’re not”, said Savidge.
“She started it with her baseless allegations”, said Book Club.
“Baseless my foot!” snapped Society.
“Look, I don’t give a toss who started what”, said Savidge. “Just take your silly bloody argument somewhere else.”
“Language!” said Book Club.
“All this fighting between fan clubs … it’s ridiculous”, said Savidge.
The ladies bristled.
“For god’s sake, she was only a bloody writer.”
He ducked as a half-eaten burger flew towards his face. A chorus of angry voices assailed him and a venomous looking crowd suddenly surged forward. From somewhere within the melee, a selfie stick was thrown. Savidge deflected it with his burger flipper and it cartwheeled through the air before connecting heavily with the head of an exceptionally tall and quite obviously male Miss Cutter. There was always a good sprinkling of stubbly and muscular Millies among the crowds of festival cosplayers. Some took their dressing up very seriously but most simply dragged up for a laugh, no more a transvestite than the average pantomime dame. This one was particularly large and not in the least bit feminine. He replaced his cloche hat and wig and stared daggers at the burger van. Sensing that withdrawal was his best tactical option, Savidge shut the serving hatch and locked all the doors. Outside, a small army of gin-soaked and angry Millies slapped and thumped the side of the vehicle and beat at the hatch with their walking and selfie sticks. Rumours ran through the crowds like Chinese whispers, each retelling getting more and more insulting.
“He said she was only a writer …”
“Then he had the audacity to suggest that her writing is terrible …”
“He insulted Agnes Crabbe and her writing …”
“He said that her stories are dreadful and that she couldn’t write for toffee …”
“He said that her work is rubbish ...”
Muscling his way through the angry mob, and a good six inches taller than everyone around him, the drag artist reached the van and peered angrily into the passenger door window.
“What did you do that for?” he shouted, pointing to a red mark on his forehead. His mouth was fixed in a badly applied lipstick sneer.
Savidge climbed into the driver’s seat and, seeing the drag artist’s face pressed against the glass, shouted, “Not my fault.”
“Come out of there!” shouted the drag artist. He began hammering on the passenger window with a sizeable fist and many of the enraged and inebriated Millies joined in with the beat, drumming on the side of the van.
“Come out here and apologise!”
“No way”, said Savidge.
“Come out here you coward!”
“Fuck off”, said Savidge, flipping two fingers in the air.
The drag artist grabbed the door handle of the van in anger and began repeatedly pulling at it. The van began to rock from side to side. Seeing this, the Millies added their weight to his efforts and the van began to sway more violently.
“Come out of there you weasel!” shouted the drag artist. “Come out here and apologise! Be a man!”
“You first!” shouted Savidge. He felt safe where he was and confident that the big cross-dresser couldn’t get the door open. He put his hands behind his head and pretended to yawn. “What are you trying to do? Rock me to sleep?”
The taunting made the big man double his efforts. By now he’d been joined by even more drunk Millies who had no idea what was going on but had heard that the man in the van had, apparently, stated that Agnes Crabbe was the worst writer of all time. The van was now swaying quite alarmingly and Savidge began to wonder if there was a possibility that it could tip over. In the back, the fridge door suddenly whipped open, spilling cans and soft drinks bottles onto the floor. Utensils and bags of bread rolls toppled from shelves and, more worryingly, the hot oil in the deep fat fryer began to splash about. Savidge looked over his shoulder and realised that maybe he had a problem.
“Okay, enough is enough!” he shouted at the crowds. “I get the point. I’m sorry, okay?”
His begrudged apology was lost in the din of their massed anger. Fuelled by liquor and exhibiting exactly the kind of partisan-inspired violence that set football fans at each other’s throats, the militant Millies continued to attack the van of the man who had, allegedly, dared to say that Agnes Crabbe wrote the worst murder mysteries of all time. Meanwhile, several small fights had broken out between members of rival fan clubs who had seized the opportunity of the crush to settle old scores. Heavy handbags were swung, wrinkled faces were slapped and varicose ankles and shins were kicked. Inside the van Savidge bounced off the walls as he tried to make his way into the kitchen area to turn off the appliances. But he was too late. The van’s nearside wheels lifted from the grass and, as the vehicle crashed back down, the sudden lurch sent a small wave of cooking oil sloshing from the fryer onto the hot plate where it burst into flames. Savidge searched desperately for a fire extinguisher and it was his bad luck that the first one he found was the wrong one. He squeezed the trigger and was treated to a near perfect demonstration of why you should never use water on an oil fire. As the fryer erupted, the whole interior of the van seemed to be suddenly ablaze. Having thrown himself back into the driver’s compartment, and caught his groin painfully on the gear stick in doing so, Savidge scrabbled desperately for the door handle and launched himself into the open air just as the drinks cans, which had been sitting in the middle of the burning floor, began to explode. The van was rocking no longer – at the first suggestion of a fire, the mob of angry Millies had disappeared into the large crowd that had gathered to watch. And now, as the cans and bottles began to pop with a sound like shotgun fire, the crowd pulled back further and, as toes were trodden upon and ribs were elbowed, several more fights broke out. Old rivalries and unsettled scores added energy to the violence.
By the time that the two young police officers arrived at the scene, at least 30 Crabbe fans were attempting to knock seven bells out of each other. The distant sound of sirens suggested that someone had, at least, had the presence of mind to call the Fire Brigade. One of the police officers strode into the crowd.
“You will stop fighting immediately and disperse!” he shouted. “I repeat. You will stop fighting immediately and disperse!”
No one stopped fighting immediately and no one dispersed.
Savidge had got a good distance clear of his burning van but he hadn’t managed to avoid the angry female impersonator who still seemed intent on his pound of flesh. Having chased his quarry down and rugby tackled him to the ground, the big man was now sitting astride Savidge’s chest, his knees painfully pinning his arms down crucifixion style and his crotch pushing insistently against the burger van man’s chin. Savidge wriggled violently and growled in frustration.
“Are you going to apologise?” snarled the drag artist.
“Get … off … me … you … freak!” shouted Savidge. The drag artist dug his knees deeper into his prisoner’s fleshy biceps. Savidge’s anger rose several notches, as did the tone and timbre of his agonised yelps. Starved of blood, his hands began to turn a ghastly white.
“Say you’re sorry!”
“Fuck you! Fuck all of you and Agnes fucking Crabbe and her stupid fucking books!” screamed Savidge. His face had taken on a dangerously purple hue and fat veins stood out at his temples. He began to thrash about wildly and the big drag artist rode him like a bucking bronco, bearing down even harder and grabbing his prisoner’s wrists in an effort to keep him under control. Savidge frothed and gurgled. Somewhere deep inside his brain, something went ‘click’. Pinned to the wet grass by 18 stones of female impersonator and desperately gasping for breath, he glared at the bulging gusset that filled his field of vision and sank his teeth into the man’s plump scrotum. The drag artist seemed to suddenly leap five feet vertically into the air and, in a second, Savidge was up on his feet and running, oblivious to the agonised yells of the drag artist and to the noise of the newly arrived fire engines pumping foam into the blackening shell of his van. He was blind and deaf to everything except the pounding of hot blood in his ears and his own desperate need to get as far away as possible from people dressed as Millicent Cutter. As he dodged and weaved between the Millies, all that registered in his oxygen-starved brain was a blur of people all dressed the same. Cutters here. Cutters there. Cutter after Cutter after Cutter after Cutter. A group of them was making its way towards the Empire Hotel and, at its centre, was a woman he recognised immediately from posters in the pub and from broadcasts on the television. The name Greeley surfaced briefly in his head but then vanished. All he knew was that this was ‘the’ Miss Cutter. Cutter Prime. The Alpha Cutter. The Queen of the colony. He gave her entourage a wide berth but there were still Cutters all around him: tall Cutters, short Cutters, fat, thin and bespectacled Cutters, young sexy Cutters and old wrinkly Cutters, black, brown and pasty white Goth Cutters. They shuffled towards him and his crazed vision accentuated their features as if he was seeing them through a fish-eye lens. Savidge’s sense of reality was slipping quickly away. His mind conflated the sights before his eyes with every post-apocalypse movie he’d ever seen. He howled as he ran past the pub and along the Coxeter Road as fast as his legs would carry him.