Hello lovely shedfolk! Here's my last post of 2016. And I thought I'd give you a short Christmas story set in the same world as A Murder To Die For.
Everyone took the mickey out of Mr Spurgeon.
He lived in the old post office opposite the vicarage and, while all of the houses on Chapel Street had respectable rear gardens, Mr Spurgeon had the bonus of a small corner plot on the side. At its centre was a tall whitewashed flagpole left over from the days of the Empire and, every day at 9am, Mr Spurgeon would unlock his shed, remove a flag from one of the many plastic storage boxes inside, walk to his flagpole, and tie the halyard to the flag’s wooden toggle with a neatly executed clove hitch. Then he tied the trailing strop to the downhaul end of the rope. Then he would hoist his flag, tie it off on the cleat and leave it flying until 5pm when, as he did every day, he would run the flag down, neatly fold it in the proscribed fashion and put it back inside its box in the shed. Most days he flew the union flag (he got really quite exercised if you called it the union jack) but on national days or other special occasions he flew other flags from his extensive collection. For example, on the 26th January he flew the Australian flag for Australia Day and on March 5th it was the white cross on black for Cornwall’s St Piran’s Day. The 4th of July would see Old Glory fluttering above his house and on St Andrew’s Day, it was the blue saltire. On dates when national days clashed, such as the 27th April which was shared by the Netherlands, Togo, Sierra Leone and South Africa, he rotated them on a yearly basis.
Mr Spurgeon proudly referred to himself as a vexillologist. His friends called him obsessive and joked about his passion for flags when they drank with him in the saloon bar of the Herewardshire Hog. Other, less kind, commentators made snide remarks about mental illness behind his back.
Spradbarrow was barely a village at all, nothing more than a small street lined with cottages and shops and a rather ugly and squat Gothic church. Almost no one worked in Spradbarrow, most people being retired. Those that did included the almost perpetually tipsy vicar and the people who ran the village shop, the pub and a strangely incongruous hairdressing salon. The pun in the name of the hairdresser’s didn’t work either. It was called Lunatic Fringe but no one could quite figure out exactly what the owner, Mrs Trint, had been thinking when she chose it. Was it simply that all the best names had gone? There was a salon in Bowcester called Curl Up and Dye and one in Milverton called Crops and Bobbers. She’d originally advertised as Fringe Benefits before discovering a mobile hairdresser using that name in Pawley. And so, the salon had become Lunatic Fringe. The same people who joked about Mr Spurgeon also joked that you had to be mad to get your hair done by the myopic Mrs Trint. Mrs Squint they called her. If you wanted a decent haircut you asked for an appointment with her daughter, Rowena.
A heavy frost and a flurry of snow had seen the odds of a white Christmas slashed from 200-1 to 10-1 at the bookies and the good folk of Spradbarrow were keeping their fingers crossed. It was something of a forlorn hope because South Herewardshire was the flattest and most featureless county in the whole of the UK and anything more than a dusting of snow was as rare as hen’s teeth. Equally rare was a good strong mobile phone signal; ironically, the lack of hills on which to place a transmitter meant that the networks had to get their signal around substantial buildings like churches and through dense woods and forests. Nor were there any buildings in the county over six storeys in height or tall telecomms masts (thanks to not-in-my-back-yard protests) on which to place a booster. Consequently, poor reception was endemic, as Simon Brownsmere, Rowena Trint’s fiancée, was discovering.
Having been summoned back home from a company Christmas party at Head Office in Oxford, he now found himself hopelessly lost among the winding woodland roads. He and Rowena had only recently moved back to the area, having spent several years living together in his native Gloucester, and he hadn’t learned his way around yet. Despite having driven to and from Spradbarrow several times, he’d always had Rowena in the passenger seat to give him directions. But now he was alone and lost, the SatNav on his phone was next to useless due to poor reception, and it was too dark to see any obvious physical landmarks such as a hill or a mountain, even if there were any to see. Normally, Simon wouldn’t have worried too much about being late. He was a laid back sort of fellow and his motto, had he had one, might have been ‘There’ll be another bus along in a minute’. But today was different. Today he had to be on time. Rowena had gone into labour a week early and she was determined to have a home birth. The family doctor had approved it and a midwife had arrived at the cottage. He had been told to get back home as quickly as possible. He just had no idea how.
He pulled over to the side of the road and, once again, attempted to call Rowena’s mobile phone. Mrs Trint answered.
“Simon! Where are you? Rowena’s in second stage labour! She’s in the paddling pool!”
In the background, Simon could hear what sounded like whale song and his fiancé swearing profusely. His name popped up with alarming frequency.
“I’m trying my best to get there but I’m hopelessly lost”, said Simon. “I know I’m not too far away but … hello? Hello? Can you hear me?”
The line had gone dead and, suddenly, there was the irritating continuous boooooop tone that indicated end of call.
“Arse”, cursed Simon and he dialled the number again. All he got back was the boop-boop-boop sound that meant that his call couldn’t be connected. He tried again. And again. On the fifth attempt it connected.
“Where are you now?” shouted Mrs Trint above the hullabaloo and profanity.
“Same place as I was before,” flustered Simon. “I have no idea which direction to head in from here. How is she doing?”
“Can’t you hear?” said Mrs Trint.
A particularly blood-curdling howl made Simon pull the phone way from his ear. He returned it in time to hear some fascinating opinions about his legitimacy.
“Are there no clues at all?” said Mrs Trint. “Use your eyes, Simon. There must be something … a church tower, a signpost, anything!”
“There’s nothing. It’s too dark. I can’t see anything but trees”, said Simon, desperately. “There are no street names, no signposts, nothing! And there’s …”
Back in Spradbarrow, Mrs Trint growled at the phone. She looked at her daughter, red-faced with the agonies of birth and at the reassuring face of the midwife in attendance.
“Where is Simon?” screamed Rowena through gritted teeth.
“You’re fully dilated now”, said the midwife.
“He’s on his way”, said Mrs Trint unconvincingly. “He’s just having a few problems finding his way through the country lanes and …”
“GAAAAARRRRRRAAAGHH! USELESS FUUUCKAAAAAAARRRRRGGGHBASTARD!”
“Oh dear. If only you could send up a flare”, said the midwife. “That’s what they do at sea.”
“A flare,” said Mrs Trint. “I’ll be right back.” And, with that, she ran out of the house.
Mr Spurgeon was drinking a cup of hot chocolate and watching a documentary about sharks when there came the sound of desperate knocking on his door. He opened it and found himself looking at the panicky boss-eyed face of Mrs Trint.
“Can I use your pole?” she said, breathlessly.
“My … er … eh?” said Mr Spurgeon.
“Your flagpole. Can I put a flag up?” said Mrs Trint. She quickly explained the situation.
“Oh my dear woman, of course you can”, said Mr Spurgeon pulling on his jacket. “Follow me.”
It was a short walk across the frosty grass to the shed. Mr Spurgeon unlocked it and switched on the light.
“Any particular flag?” he asked.
“Anything”, said Mrs Trint. “Something visible from a distance.”
“Something white then”, said Mr Spurgeon. “Maybe the Japanese flag?”
“Whatever you think is best”, said Mrs Trint. “But hurry please. The baby is coming.”
Mr Spurgeon selected the storage box marked ‘I & J’ and went outside to the flagpole. Within minutes the rising sun was rising over Spradbarrow. Mrs Trint redialled Simon’s phone number on Rowena’s mobile. It connected.
“Simon, we’ve put a flag up the flagpole in the village”, explained Mrs Trint. “It’s a white flag with a red circle in the middle.”
“The Japanese flag?” said Simon.
“It’s officially called the Nisshōki in the Japanese language, but is more commonly known as the Hinomaru”, explained the village’s resident vexillologist.
“It’s the most visible one we have,” snapped Mrs Trint. “Head towards the flag. I’m going back home to Rowena. I’ll leave her phone with Mr Spurgeon. He’ll talk you in.”
She thrust the phone into Mr Spurgeon’s surprised hand and ran off back to the cottage. Mr Spurgeon put the phone to his ear.
“H… hello?” he said. “Max Spurgeon here.”
“Simon. Simon Brownsmere. Hello”, said Simon. “Thank you so much for this Max. I feel so useless.”
“Mrs Trint has explained the problem”, said Mr Spurgeon. “Can you see the flag yet?”
“No. I can’t see anything. It’s too dark”, said Simon. “Oh god! I’m going to miss it aren’t I? I’m going to miss the birth of my first child.”
Mr Spurgeon took a deep breath. “No, no you’re not”, he said firmly. “Not if I have anything to do with it. Keep looking. There will be a sign, a very visible sign very shortly.” He ran into his shed.
Simon drove on through the dark looking despairingly for something, anything that would show him the way home. His eyes were blurred with tears.
“I’m coming sweetheart … I’m coming. Just hold on.”
And then, all of a sudden, through the tears and the dark carapace of trees, he saw a light; a fiercely burning yellow light against the sky. The phone rang.
“Can you see it?” said Mr Spurgeon.
“Yes! Yes I can see it!” said Simon. “And I’m close. Oh thank God! I’m so close!”
Simon’s car hurtled into Spradbarrow High Street and skidded to a halt outside his cottage. He ran inside, barely registering the blazing flag fluttering atop Mr Spurgeon’s flagpole. The tattered remnants spat embers that drifted away like glowing orange snowflakes.
Mr Spurgeon watched it burn with satisfaction. Within minutes there was the unmistakeable sound of a baby crying.
Tabitha Elizabeth Brownsmere was born at 8.47pm on Friday 23rd December 2016. Her birth was reported on the local TV news that came on after the main bulletin at Six O’Clock. A reporter interviewed Mr Spurgeon about his role in the dramatic events that had preceded the birth.
“And did you really burn a genuine antique Nazi flag?” asked the reporter.
“I did”, said Mr Spurgeon matter-of-factly. “I realised that I needed something more dramatic as a beacon and what's more dramatic than fire?”
“But why a Nazi flag?” asked the reporter.
“I did consider burning an obsolete flag such as the flag of Rhodesia, or Yugoslavia but it just suddenly hit me that the Nazi flag was the better option”, explained Mr Spurgeon. “I bought it back in the 1970s as an investment you see. I knew that Nazi memorabilia is very collectible and that its value could only increase. But in the last few years I’ve seen a disturbing resurgence of Far Right politics across the world. The fascists are back and I knew, deep down, that if I ever put the flag up for sale it would doubtless be bought by someone like that. Using it to do some good seemed a much better idea.”
“Even though it may have been worth hundreds of pounds?” said the reporter.
“It was a relic of a dark period in history”, said Mr Spurgeon. “A newborn child is the promise of a better tomorrow. I reckon it was money well spent.”
No one took the mickey out of Mr Spurgeon again.
Well, maybe just a little.
Merry Christmas everyone! And may 2017 be a better, brighter year for us all.
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