Pebbleton on edge, p.1
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       Pebbleton-On-Edge, p.1
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           D A Gregory
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  D. A. Gregory




  Copyright 2011 D. A. Gregory


  Grateful thanks to all those who encouraged the writing of this book and helped with details of authenticity, including my former colleagues at LTC, Les and Colin from the ship, school friends Sue and Angela, and Hannah for proofreading and advice. Special thanks to my dear husband Keith for his patience throughout.

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, places, events, characters, organisations and businesses are either used fictitiously or are the product of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, alive or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Chapter 1 - Meetings

  Reluctant to let this final interview end on a bitter note, the man with the quiet voice told the sullen individual who stood before his desk his usual anecdote for such occasions:

  "When my little girl started school, she came home and asked what I do at work. Before I could think how to explain, my wife cut in with 'Daddy tries to stop naughty men doing naughty things.' Good description, I'd say, wouldn't you?"

  Show no emotion, no reaction. The ambiguous reply came: "For a child, yes, sir."

  Embarrassed, the quiet-voiced man hesitated, the smile fading from his tired face. He stood and leaned forward, offering a hand to shake. This was accepted politely, and they both headed for the door of the office. "Well, goodbye,, sorry, um??and all the best in your new life. We will, of course, keep a little eye on your.....welfare."

  'Simon' bit back the retort 'That would be a first'. He passed through the door and down the corridor, checked at the lift by a security officer, the first of three he had to get past before finally emerging onto a street near the embankment. It was a cold November afternoon, the approach of winter sending the young London business generation in smart suits leaping from taxis and scuttling into the warmth of buildings, scorning coats and scarves. 'Simon', a little older and wiser, pulled a thick coat over his suit. It still seemed odd to be wearing a suit, after getting used, no more thinking about the past. He breathed deeply of the damp air, eager to start on his plans. However vaguely formed in detail, these plans had a general purpose, an upward trend toward which pure human instinct led him. Already the groundwork was prepared, the necessary documents in a thin folder hidden under his mattress, thanks to the few useful contacts he had made in the building behind him. Every single document, carefully prepared and suitably aged where applicable, bore the name by which he would now be known. The thought gladdened his heart, and detaching himself from the crowd on the street he practically danced down the long flight of steps to the tube station. Now to pick up his few possessions from that horrible little bedsit, and then?.!

  Watching his departure from the office window several floors above, the man with the quiet voice breathed deeply and released the air in a discontented gust. The office door opened and his secretary joined him at the window, murmuring, "Gone, has he?"

  "Hmmm. Definitely have to put him down as a failure, that one..?Damn it, I couldn't even get his name right. 'Stop naughty men'....more like 'take screwed-up men and make them ten times worse'.....what have we just let loose on society?"

  Chocolate digestives are not the right choice for the up-and-coming local government employee. Sue had already got crumbs in her keyboard, and now she was wiping a smear of chocolate off a letter that was waiting to be signed by the Parish Clerk. Still, it would be worthwhile if the Clerk in question would overcome his inhibitions (whatever they might be) and take a certain lady out on a proper date. Sue had let the chocolate melt in her fingers while gazing out of the window, watching the object of these musings walking away from the building with Paula Rivers, the youngest of the Parish Councillors, and the easiest on the eye by a long stretch.

  Jealousy played no part in Sue's mental wanderings, for she preferred men who were open and direct, and preferably a little younger than James Goswell. No, Paula was the girl for him, she cared about local issues and could talk intelligently about current affairs. Miss Sue Cheam, on the other hand, left her desk at five sharp and emptied her mind of the day's work. Life, in her opinion, was to be lived, which meant zumba classes, helping run charity events, and catching up with her friends to plan the next holiday or weekend trip. Anything to make sure that earning money was a means to an end, not the end itself.

  The two people on Sue's mind were by this time walking in a grove of pine trees, out of the blinding sunlight of a mid-June day. The dry needles whispered beneath their feet as they walked on in cool shadows, until they reached the wire fence that prevented further progress. Past the wire, a blazing sunlit panorama lay shimmering in heat haze -the cliff edge, the sea rocking gently, and down to the left a tiny beach baking below a stony path. The bleached sand gave way to grey shingle, and then another cliff rose sharply out of the shallow waters, topped by a large flat area of grassy meadow. No sound disturbed them but the cries of seagulls, and the muted crush and sigh of the waves. Finally the woman spoke. "I don't think it's a good idea."

  "Why?" Spoken with surprise but devoid of anger, though he had so much riding on it.

  "I - I can't tell you exactly. I just have the oddest feeling - oh, I know it's good for Pebbleton, and everything, but - well, there's something so wrong about spoiling all this!" She flung her hand round at the view, passionate in her distress.

  He pretended to jump out of the way of her flailing arm, and she laughed. He was taken aback at the unexpected strength of her feelings. Slim and brunette, her long hair twisted up into a clip, her face animated by emotion, she looked beautiful to him. He resisted the urge to touch her as he quietly replied, "I didn't know you were so crazy about the view - or Pebbleton, for that matter."

  She turned to him, amazed. "I love this place, James - I came here for holidays when we were kids. There can't be a square inch of that cliff-top we didn't picnic on!"

  "Oh, I see," he smiled. "Sentimentality, I understand. But kids today can't be let out to explore alone. Even the picnics are regulated now - we hire them out a barbecue stand, and shoo them away at dusk. And woe betide them if they leave any litter behind!"

  "Very funny. Yes, I know it's not the same now, and we have to move on and all that - but there is something nagging away in my mind. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I just feel uneasy about this whole thing. Honestly, it's not just sentiment, I have serious misgivings about the Development."

  James knew better than to get involved in the politics of the Development project. She was a Councillor, albeit a young and attractive one. All the Councillors had their own agenda, their own interests, not to mention satisfying the pressures put on them by their political parties.

  "Oh well," he shrugged and sighed, "It won't be up to me, anyway." He added with a smile: "Fortunately. I love being the Parish Clerk - I can always blame you Councillors if the decisions you make turn out to be rubbish!" She took a friendly swipe at him, and they turned and strolled back through the trees to the main path. As they reached the beginning of the tarmac road, she got out her car keys.

  "See you tonight, then," she said, keeping her voice casual.

  "Yep, don't be late," he teased.

  "Me? Late? As if!" she laughed, and climbed into her little hatchback. Willing himself not to look back, James casually walked on towards the white pillared entrance of the square mansion that stood bathed in sunshine at the curve of the road. She watched him in her rear-view mirror, waiting until he disappeared before she began a careful three-point turn. Why did his opinion, even of her driving,
have to matter so much? It wasn't just his looks - James was, admittedly, tall, lean and had a long, handsome profile, his short hair just beginning to grey. She remembered him at a recent Council function, wearing a bow tie and tuxedo, looking far too classy for the modest Parish Council of a seaside village. He wouldn't look out of place at a Royal garden party, she had thought at the time - he had beautiful manners, and such a warm, confident way of greeting everyone, making them feel genuinely welcome. There was an air of poise about him, which had impressed the Council members who had interviewed him just a few months ago. She was glad she had not been among them - she would have accused herself of being unduly influenced by his high, intelligent forehead, twinkling brown eyes and disarming smile. She had often thought that a Parish Clerk shouldn't look like James - or maybe James should be something other than a Parish Clerk? However, Paula Rivers considered herself a sensible woman, and by now his looks alone would have lost their effect, had his personality not pleased her.

  James Goswell strode into the reception lobby, unaware of her eyes upon him. Inside the building two more interested pairs of eyes monitored his progress. "Hi, sweetie", he threw at the receptionist as he shot past her desk towards the stairs. It was always 'sweetie' if he couldn't be bothered to think of names. Very unprofessional, but he had other things on his mind. The Development project would be the main agenda item tonight and if it didn't go through Council - no, it was unthinkable, it had to be passed.

  Imogen, the flawlessly groomed receptionist, had been watching him on CCTV from the moment he stepped out of the shadow of the pines with Councillor Rivers. Her smile was that of an indulgent nanny, despite the fact that she was twenty-five to his forty. She would have dearly loved to nudge him into some such daring venture as taking Paula Rivers out to dinner - not on Council time to discuss business, but a real dinner date. She was convinced that she could read the body language going on between them. However there was no way would she dare suggest anything to James - the gossip among the girls in the Parish Council offices was that James Goswell was impossible to catch. Many lovely women had tried, it was said, and quite a few hideous ones as well. The result was just the same - a big fat nothing. James probably started the legend by joking that at least the ladies knew where they were with him - nowhere!

  Imogen turned her lovely blonde head away from the CCTV display, away from the sight of Mr. Goswell's trim backside racing up the stairs two at a time, and away from the exciting possibilities of romance in the workplace. Shaking her head sadly, she returned to the riveting task of typing up the Minutes of the last Amenities meeting, her long nails attacking the keyboard like a flock of baby woodpeckers.

  The final pair of eyes waited for him on the first floor. He didn't make it into his own office before Miss Fiona Carvell shot out of hers, forcing him to stop dead to avoid an accident. Miss Carvell, spinster of the Parish, was composed of thin bones and sinews, a pale lanky skeleton covered in purple floral cotton. At five foot ten, she was almost as tall as James, making her elbows at a dangerous height in relation to James's ribcage. Her 'threatened collision' manoeuvre was frequently used, yet no-one had found a strategy to counter its deadly force. If Miss Carvell was set on waylaying someone, they stood no chance. He did not address her as 'sweetie'. Ever.

  She had been fretting since he had announced at coffee time that he would be having his lunch out, and her suspicions of his motives were aroused. Fiona took pride in knowing everything about the incumbent Parish Clerk; his tastes, his work, his diary and especially his whereabouts. James was proving the most difficult Clerk she had ever studied. He did not conform to any pattern known to her from the previous Clerks, yet he was easy enough to work for. Nothing upset her more than his sudden unscheduled absences. No matter that he planned to go into the village to have his hair cut, grab a quick sandwich from Lacey's Cafe?, and then stroll the back way round to the pine grove for an off-the-record chat with Councillor Rivers - Fiona would feel as much hurt by the lack of communication about the haircut as she did about the unspecified activity among the pines. After an initial question that he pretended not to hear, she said no more, but loped about fretfully until he departed. Once he had gone, she sat hunched at her desk, strategically positioned with a view of the stairs and the windows, resembling an unhappy vulture. No-one ever saw her eat, and cruel rumour had it that to avoid wasting time on such a frivolous indulgence her wiry frame was sustained by energy pills as supplied on space missions, the packaging providing the only padding in her ill-fitting bra. Sue Cheam maintained that she wasn't even human and had stolen the food supply from a doomed astronaut who had the misfortune to land on her planet, wherever that was.

  James had learned soon after his arrival six months ago to humour Fiona, knowing that he needed her. She had been Secretary to five successive Parish Clerks, and knew more about the running of Pebbleton-on-Edge Parish Council than anyone. It was irritating that he could think of no way to replace her, but he was philosophical about life and accepted that she was a fixture. A little flattery now and then seemed to be all she needed, and he reassured her at appropriate intervals of the value of her support. 'Indispensible' was how she viewed herself, so that was his stock phrase when a pat on the back was due. When she got too overbearing he kept her in her place by an impromptu departure from the building, casually unexplained. Dodging Fiona had become a game, and he had developed quite a few strategies to outwit her. She should have been angry with him, but she seemed to see him as a troublesome child whose bad behaviour had to be endured. He played along, truancy his only rebellion.

  "Ah, James, I'm glad you're back," she announced, as if there had been a chance he would have absented himself for the whole afternoon and gone sun-bathing. "I need you to check the final agenda for the Tourism meeting - we only have three days and it really must be sent out to the Councillors this afternoon. And" - as he opened his mouth to reply - "I was rather at a loss to tell Councillor Denby where you were - he turned up at one o'clock - oh, don't worry, I didn't say where you were - but he was rather put out as he expected to discuss the Development with you."

  She fixed her eye on him, hoping for an explanation. "Councillor Denby? The poor old guy is losing it - I told him two o'clock. Well, back to the grindstone, eh? Let's have that Agenda and I'll get busy." He held out his hand, forcing her to back into her office to pick up the document.

  Fiona's great tragedy was that due to her knowing every detail about the running of a Parish Council, she had missed seeing the big picture. Her obsession with schedules, minutes and records left her a mine of information about the past and present running of the Council, but lacking any instinct about her colleagues, or awareness of approaching problems. She had no idea of her boss's fear of commitment, for example, otherwise she would have felt as sorry for Paula Rivers as Imogen did. Worse still, despite her proximity to the main players in the dramas unfolding around her, she had no sense of impending disaster. But then, no-one did on that warm summer day.

  It was cooler by six-fifteen, to the relief of the Council members who were heading towards Southcliff Hall. They were to meet in the recently redecorated Clandecy Room, the focal point and pride of the beautiful building. Built in the 'William and Mary' style, Southcliff Hall enjoyed the status of a listed building. It sat alone, halfway along a turning from the main village street, like a white oblong temple, with a neo-classical portico added at the centre of the front elevation, supported by four columns. Neatly planted gardens were laid out in front, either side of a concrete slope designed for wheelchair access. There were no other buildings in the road apart from the converted Hall stables housing the Tourism department, which lay across a courtyard car park adjacent to the main edifice, and beyond that a backdrop of pine trees obscured the view of the cliff edge beyond. After work hours it was an oasis of calm, and even in the week it was visited only by staff, Councillors and those villagers who had dealings wit
h the few departments in the building.

  By six James had grabbed a sandwich and cup of tea up in the staff room, and had come alone to the Clandecy room, needing a quiet moment before this most crucial hour. He walked quietly downstairs, passing through Reception to the wide corridor which led to the huge double doors of the Clandecy Room. Even this passageway was a peaceful prelude, from the silent rich carpet under his feet to the commemorative plaques on the walls. He reflected on past Council members and officials, now long dead, who had walked along this way to thrash out decisions, not momentous on a national scale, but important to the lives of generations of residents in the area. He quietly opened and hooked back the two-leaved doors to the Council's meeting room, and walked to the wide oak table with its set of sturdy leather-seated chairs. Beneath the high ceiling white fans rotated lazily. The walls had recently been repainted in a soft grey-green, with white above the picture rail and in the numerous panels. Huge portraits of the Clandecy family, the original owners of Southcliff Hall, were set into the panels, and the eyes of lost generations gazed down on the proceedings.

  His favourite portrait was of Lady Elizabeth Clandecy, original source of the family fortune. She had been the sole heiress of a wealthy Earl back in the seventeenth century; a headstrong girl of twenty-one when the young, handsome Major Edward Clandecy had danced with her at a ball (thanks to a bit of skilful social engineering by his ambitious father).

  Realising that he had made a conquest, and not one to pass up such an opportunity, the dashing Major Edward had married above himself. So far above, in fact, that he had trouble adjusting to the dizzy heights of the society into which he now found himself accepted. He was ill-equipped for the responsibilities which fell on him, knowing little of managing lands, property and fortune. Happily his shrewd father, with Elizabeth's connivance, had kept the money safely growing, and though Edward died quite young of alcohol-related causes (as it would be described today), his heirs were well provided for. Southcliff Hall had duly been built in the Palladian style, so popular at the time, and the Clandecy heirs were educated in the art of making money grow. All went well until a later generation lost a good deal in American investments during the Great Depression, but still the Clandecys were the family in the area. Memories of past glories kept Clandecy heads high in the Parish. James contemplated Lady Elizabeth's determined chin and the ironic tilt of her eyebrows, and wondered what she would think of events about to unfold.

  First to arrive, disturbing James's reverie, was Councillor Denby. "Sorry I missed you earlier," he said, "I just popped in on the off-chance. Fiona said you were out on some important business, obviously she couldn't tell me what. So I thought I'd come in early and have a quick chat. That OK?"

  James suppressed a smile, knowing that Fiona had refused to admit ignorance and turned it into discretion. He turned round one of the heavy chairs to face another, gestured to the older man to take a seat, and sat down facing Gordon Denby. "Fire away."

  "I've heard that one or two of the others are getting cold feet about letting the land go to developers. Do you think there's a chance we'll lose this? I mean, after all the hard work you chaps have done, it would be simply criminal. What can I say tonight to make this happen?"

  "Gordon, you know I'm not supposed to influence anything. Anyway, most of the work was already done when I got here. This began before my time, remember. Chewter was in office when the developers approached the Council. Everything just went on from there, feasibility studies, that sort of thing. Most people know all the pros and cons, we've had plenty of consultation meetings - it will have to be voted on of course, but I'd have thought - in principle - it would be a foregone conclusion."

  "Bad job for you if it fails, eh?"

  "Bad isn't in it. You know as well as I do this place is falling apart - without new investment, in short without the Development - we'll decline to the point where we'll have to be absorbed into the District Council. As it is we do so little here we can barely justify the upkeep of this place. But that's just us as a Council. For the village - well, with the Development, we'll get tons of infrastructure to go with it. Not to mention cash for the sale of the land. New jobs, new homes, they'll have to build a clinic too - then there's shops, bus routes, a new primary school - we either go up in the world and put ourselves back on the map, or we sink without a trace."

  James stopped, hearing himself voicing his own fears. He'd finally found a lovely niche for himself, a comfortable job in a pleasant place. He was afraid that it would all disappear, and he'd have to start all over again - at his age it wasn't so easy to find a well-paid job. His were odd qualifications, his CV read as a motley collection of short careers in several different directions. Depending on which way you viewed it, he was a man of wide and varied experience, or a man who didn't know what he wanted to do and seemed to be always on the move. He knew he'd been incredibly lucky to get this job, and was doing all he could to hang on to it.

  Gordon seemed to be absorbed in his own thoughts too, and a silence developed. Finally, Gordon heaved a sigh, and came out with an unusually perceptive comment. "You'd make an excellent politician."

  "What? Why?"

  "I asked you a question, and you talked on in fine style. You didn't give me an answer and you told me nothing I didn't already know. Yes, my son, you have the makings all right!"

  James grinned. He liked Gordon best of all the Councillors, and put up with his ramblings with more patience than others showed. He knew the old man was probably getting a touch senile, certainly he was forgetful and could get confused. His heart was in the right place, however, and he earnestly wanted the best for the little community he loved. He'd been a teacher, and after spending a lifetime successfully encouraging youngsters to make the most of humble beginnings, he often despaired of the failure of the schools and other youth services to do the same now. He insisted on seeing the potential for good in young people, and no amount of graffiti or vandalism around Pebbleton would change his outlook.

  A thumping along the corridor announced the arrival of Councillor Alfred Wentley, closely followed by Councillors Paula Rivers and Sheila Cooper. Wentley screwed up his nose in disgust at the sight of the fresh paintwork, muttering about wasted money.

  The cheerful Mrs Cooper looked about her and exclaimed "Oh, it's lovely! I do like the colour. I might use this for my bathroom!" She, at least, had her feet on the ground, thought James. Her little council house was adorned with so many colours that a peacock would have felt underdressed, but it was immaculate and very welcoming. Wouldn't it be nice, thought James, if all Councillors were humble folk like Sheila. Maybe realistic decisions would be made, and less self-interest would creep in.

  At this point, as if cued by James's train of thought, in marched Councillors Clandecy and Massington. Clandecy, of course, treated the others as if they were unwelcome guests he had to tolerate in his ancestral home. Southcliff Hall had been sold to the Council in the 1930's, long before Piers Clandecy had been born, but he resented the fact that he had never had the chance to play Lord of the Manor, welcoming the lowly residents of Pebbleton to the occasional social event and then getting rid of them for the rest of the year.

  Councillor Massington was a different kettle of fish. He was 'new money', and his lack of aristocracy saved him from the haughty attitude that radiated from Clandecy. He had a consultancy job in the city, which occasionally took him off in his beautiful Bentley, but mostly he worked part-time from home, and was able to stroll around Pebbleton, noting everything that went on. In some this would have been irritating, an intrusion by a busybody, but he almost always judged a situation correctly, and only brought to the notice of the Council what was really in need of attention.

  Massington was an imposing figure, tall and straight-backed, with a full head of wavy grey hair. He was handsome in a way that all older men would love to be, attractive to women and gracious in his dealings with all, rega
rdless of social status. In these ways he outshone Clandecy, to the other man's fury. Dennis Massington had enough confidence to be relaxed and friendly with all, including Clandecy, despite knowing his efforts were only returned because he was a man of wealth and importance. Clandecy hid his feelings poorly, and an uneasiness came over all present when the two of them entered together. It was unnatural, bizarre, that they should have met by appointment to make such an entrance, and several querying looks passed between those already in the room.

  Clandecy was the one to answer the puzzle, by a stream of foul language directed at an unseen mechanic who had failed to correct the problem with his Sports Mercedes. Apparently he had broken down at the end of the village, and had walked a few hundred yards before waving Massington down for a lift. It would have been a blow to his pride, for men of such noble birth cannot be seen walking any more than they can be seen begging lifts from the upwardly mobile. He was to chair the meeting, otherwise he would have probably phoned his wife to come with her car, then left her to get the RAC out to the Mercedes while he drove her Audi to Southcliff Hall.

  After another ten minutes some members of the public who intended to protest came into the Clandecy Room and were seated quietly, awed by their surroundings. The meeting got under way. After the usual formalities the main topic was introduced, and James Goswell stood up to give the latest report on the situation. Everything was in place; all surveys, feasibility studies, environmental impact studies and the like had been done, planning permissions and legal technicalities were covered, and it only remained for the Parish Council to agree to the sale of the land. "In conclusion, if Council gives its agreement tonight, Egron Development will start work one week from now. The District Council will keep track with road connections, and Egron will follow their agreed programme to put in the infrastructure. Now, would anyone like to make any comments or ask any questions?"

  There was a moment's silence, as the reality sunk in. Every objection had been parried months ago, as factions fought to keep the necessary waste facility away from their corner of the village, and possible horror scenarios were dissolved in a reassuring picture of affordable housing filled with nice nurses and courteous constables, shiny new shopping avenues and, best of all, a fabulous holiday park with cosy log cabins and a heated swimming dome. More jobs for the young people, more tourist money, more hope.

  A shuffling from the back of the room broke the spell. A man in a worn suit stood up, urged and pushed by his wife. He fiddled nervously with the knot of his tie, scratched his ear and hitched up one shoulder before he found the courage to speak. "Go on!" hissed his wife.

  "Your name, please," said James encouragingly. "Simpson," the man replied in a squeak, then cleared his throat, and tried again. "Simpson. Mr Simpson from Grove Avenue."

  "Thank you Mr Simpson, we have to have that for the Minutes. Now please let us have your comments."

  "Er, well we wondered if there would be a lot more traffic through our area - especially while the building goes on. I suppose that would be quite a long time?"

  James sighed inwardly. "The increase in traffic was part of the environmental impact study, Mr Simpson, and it was judged to be at an acceptable level. Of course there will be some disruption during the building stage, but there are several routes to the sites, so your area will not have to bear the brunt of it."

  Simpson's wife jumped up. "Where will the worst of it go, then?" she shouted. "Only our daughter and her kids live right near where the new road will go, and they'll be getting all of it from what I can see!"

  "Of course work will only be going on at appropriate times - vehicles will not be allowed to move after certain hours, Mrs Simpson - it is Mrs Simpson I take it? - and you can read all the restrictions in the developer's charter. That has been on display in Reception for several months now. Does that answer your question?"

  And so it went on. Pointless questions were countered with banal answers, repeating reassurances that had been covered over and over again in previous meetings. James kept waiting for some rumblings from the Councillors, but none came. Finally the time arrived for the vote. Nobody was surprised when there was an overwhelming majority in favour of the Development. James found himself letting a long breath escape his body, and he moved his head discreetly to release the tension in his neck. He carried on as if no outstanding event had occurred, moving the meeting towards the closing items.

  He stole a glance at Paula Rivers, while the members of the public left the meeting. She looked thoughtful, but did not appear upset. There was just one exempt item, which the Council had the right to discuss in private. A trainee was needed for the Tourism Department, and it was agreed that a youngster should be found who would work for less money than a more experienced person. This was couched in less obvious terms, but everyone had their eye on the budget, and knew that it would be a long time before the next year's funds flowed in. Councillor Massington joked that once the land was sold to Egron they could afford Paris Hilton, and Councillor Mrs Cooper surprised everyone by looking very serious and commenting, "My old Dad used to say, 'Wait until the ink's dry', and I reckon we shouldn't count our chickens". She looked so solemn that everyone stifled their laughter, and not before she had blushed. James gallantly interrupted with, "Very true, Sheila, you are a wise woman."

  The Council members left the building in unusually companionable mood, not an argument among them. The sun was low and many lingered outside in the pleasant evening air, chatting about the glowing future that awaited Pebbleton-on-Edge. There was a sense of occasion and achievement tonight. Most agreed that the public had no idea how difficult it was to run a small town - for suddenly they saw themselves as a future town, so much more than a village. Their weighty responsibility had been discharged tonight in a triumphant finale to years of effort.

  James waited for the last few to amble outside, then set the alarm and locked the doors. He had his hand shaken by many of the Councillors, although he protested that none of it was his doing. Finally he reached Paula, and asked her if she was happy with the decision. She looked down at her shoes, then turned her head sharply and looked over her shoulder at the pine trees. He wondered if she was crying and didn't want him to see her face. He was embarrassed and almost turned away to let her escape the awkward moment, but suddenly she snapped her head around to face him. Something like anger was in her eyes, and her face was tense. "I just hope they know what they're doing," she growled, her teeth gritted. "Paula - what's the matter?" he asked, horrified. "I know you said you had misgivings, but - you never said anything in the meeting - I don't understand......"

  "Don't you worry, James, your job is safe. You'll be fine, and as you said, you get to dodge the blame if it all turns out wrong." She looked him straight in the eye, cold and sarcastic, and he was lost for words. Until now she had never spoken harshly to him - what had changed? Before he could think of a reply, she turned and walked to her car, tense and dignified. Suddenly the evening's triumph was blunted, and he realised that part of his enjoyment of life in Pebbleton was his friendship with her. He was puzzled, but not unduly worried. Women, in his experience, had inexplicable moods, and probably she would be completely different tomorrow. Perhaps she would tell him what was wrong, but he rather hoped she would just forget it. James had turned avoidance of confrontation into an art-form - not that Paula knew that yet. He turned as Dennis Massington slapped him on the back and suggested a celebratory drink at The Gull Inn. 'Men,' thought James, 'are just not complicated like women.'

  Paula drove to the main road and decided that she needed to unwind before going home, so she pulled over and switched on her mobile. She called her friend Sue Cheam and arranged to meet up at The Gull Inn. Sue told her that she was already there with another friend, Kim Coulthard, but they'd be glad for her to join them. Paula was pleased as Kim was a sweet person who had suffered badly in the last year. She and Sue often set up some re
laxing down-time with Kim, from spa days to theatre trips.

  Paula turned her car round and headed in the direction of The Gull Inn, a historic pub dating from even earlier than Southcliff Hall. On entering the car park she saw Dennis Massington and James Goswell walking into the pub. She called Sue again and asked if they could change the venue. Sue was puzzled, but agreed, as Paula pleaded. They gathered their bags and walked towards the door, but encountered the men coming in. As both Sue and Kim worked for the Council and knew that the meeting had just finished, they were keen to stay and hear about it, but made their excuses and left to find Paula.

  "What a shame," whispered Sue. "Paula is dead keen on James, and she'll miss a brilliant opportunity to socialise with him here."

  "I know," Kim replied, "perhaps we should ring her back and tell her." Just then they saw Paula in her car, trying to drive out of the pub car park. She was having difficulty as there were so many cars and others were trying to come in at the same time. The two women ran over to her with beaming faces, and told her who was in the pub. "I know," she replied, frowning. "Not my favourite person right now."

  Kim and Sue exchanged glances. "OK," said Sue, "the little wine bar opposite Lacey's, and there, missy, you can tell us what this is all about." Paula nodded, and a few minutes later they all met up again. The wine bar was noisy and too hot, but Kim and Sue were agog to know just how the placid James had managed to upset Paula.

  "Come on, tell all," Sue insisted.

  "I'm not sure I should," Paula replied unhappily.

  "We can keep our mouths shut," said Kim, and Paula knew that was true. The three friends had shared some painful secrets, and each was loyal to the bond of sisterhood that precluded gossiping to outsiders.

  "OK," Paula sighed. "It will be a relief to tell you, actually." She took a sip of her house white wine and set the glass down on the table, keeping her hands wrapped round it as if it were a source of security. "At lunchtime," she began, "I had a lovely walk with James and we got on fine. I grumbled a bit about the Development spoiling the landscape, but he didn't seem to mind. I did feel quite strongly about it, because of my happy memories of childhood holidays here, and - well - an uneasy feeling I've had about it for some time. Don't ask me to explain that - I just feel nervous about the future. Sorry, I know your jobs could be in jeopardy if the village doesn't get developed, but that's how I feel. I was actually going to abstain tonight."

  Her friends reassured her that she had every right to follow her conscience in voting for or against Council matters, and she nodded.

  "The thing is - I didn't think James would be so up in arms about the possibility of the Council getting disbanded and absorbed into Frayminster. He didn't say anything at lunchtime. But while I was at work in the afternoon, I got a message from him. It was a bit garbled, our school secretary is not brilliant at relaying exactly what people say on the phone, but apparently James rang and said that he was very disappointed that I didn't care about everyone's jobs. He mentioned his own job, she said, and he must have said something about yours too - 'my friends' were mentioned. I just couldn't believe it - what a horrible thing to do, making out that I don't care. I do!"

  She was gripping the wine glass so tightly it looked in danger of breaking, so Sue gently detached her hands and said "We know, darling. And I think it was a horrible thing to do. Through your workplace, too - that's really rotten."

  They sat looking at each other for a moment, then Kim spoke. "I know I'm probably being paranoid," she started, "but you're sure it was really James who left the message?"

  The other two knew why Kim would fear being thought paranoid, and ignored that part of her comment. Paula put her head on one side and considered the possibility. "That's quite true - I didn't ask what the voice was like. Well, you don't, do you? But James Goswell was the name given. I suppose anyone could say that....."

  "They'd know you were teaching in the afternoon, and couldn't take the call in person," Kim pointed out. Paula taught English at Frayminster College, the large secondary school in the nearby town.

  "It doesn't make sense," Sue reasoned. "I mean you and James spoke at lunchtime - I saw you both, you looked fine to me. Maybe someone knew you might not vote for the Development, and wanted to put pressure on you. They might have figured you'd react if you thought James was upset."

  "Well, I did react," Paula replied. I was furious, and voted against. Sorry, know I shouldn't tell you, but it made no difference - the vote was not far off unanimous, so my squeak of protest went unheard. I'm afraid I gave James a hard time - oh, my goodness - what if it wasn't him?"

  "You could ask him," Kim consoled her. "He doesn't bite, you know."

  "Oh, I'm such an idiot," Paula wailed, putting her head down on her arms. The other two looked at each other and grinned. It was obvious that Paula was willing to absolve James of guilt if at all possible, and equally obvious that her feelings for him were back in full force. A little communication might be all that was needed, unless of course James really had made that call.......

  It was on Sue's mind as she drove home. What kind of man was James? At work he had managed to give away so little of his background that no-one knew him as a person. Perhaps she shouldn't be encouraging Paula to set her cap at him. What if he was a dodgy customer, a smooth charmer? She tried to apply her considerable common sense to estimate his character, but all she had to go on was how he'd treated everyone at Southcliff Hall for the six months he'd been in the job. That was all right, he was great to work for. Reasonable, cheerful, understanding if anyone had a problem and needed time off - no, this phone call business didn't make sense at all. She would get to the bottom of it. 'Oh, dear, I'm doing it again,' though a repentant Sue. 'None of my business, keep out of it. Supposing I pushed her into his arms and it all turned out badly? OK, for once in your life, Sue Cheam, you're going to stop being an interfering busybody and let your mates work out their own affairs.' With this resolution she pressed harder on the accelerator and broke another of her self-imposed commandments: 'I will not speed down the back roads.'

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