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Death By Chocolate - chapters 3 and 4

by Phelim 

Posted: 11 May 2004
Word Count: 2906
Summary: The next instalment of an intellectual cosy.

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Chapter 3
The local paper had contained a brief report concerning the hospitalisation of the colonel. This was superbly non-committal concerning the cause of the incident, holding itself to the vagary of having fallen on returning home at night. The wild fire of gossip had put into the equation the sobriety of Colonel Orr. Otherwise the best way to describe the parish council was quiet. While he was a character, colonel allowed things to run more smoothly. For example, debates were now that rather than monologues with muttered yeas or nays from off stage. The only person who it could be said was effected by Colonel Orr's mishap was Robert Westland. It was in Robert's nature to avoid trouble, and as such he rapidly changed the subject when this issue was raised. While, like many of the counsellors, Robert was voted on as part of the anti-theatre backlash he had been cowed by the Colonel. It would not have surprised many if, with the absence of such a strong character, such a shrinking violet would have had the opportunity to flourish - just as plants do with the removal of a tree that created too much shade. Yet Robert remained the shy, reticent person of before. Whether it was the echo of Colonel Orr hovered above his shoulder or that the stunting was permanent, the reality was Robert remained silent, and if anything became even more nervy.

Yet in his way Robert Westland was a pillar of the community. The village postman, Westland had been instrumental in the cleaning up of the community after the infamous "hurricane" of 1987, and even after eight years both Wykmead and the surrounding countryside carried the scars of that night. Most conspicuous was the missing King George's Oak, a large tree planted to commemorate the accession to the throne of George 3rd which, being rotten, had suffered the temper of the wind. The result was, much to the upset of the community, that the tree was classified as unsafe and felled. On the Green, in sight of the new theatre, stood a bench made from this vast oak, and a sapling that had been grown from an acorn from this waste tree now made its way sun wards where it's parent had once cast shade.

The result of Colonel Orr's accident was that, for a short time the talk in the community was not about the theatre. Gareth Highfield went around as if this was done deliberately. While rehearsals for Death by Chocolate continued, much time was taken up by with the director's angst.

On the Friday following the accident Highfield was in fine form. "How could he" It was not a question. "Stealing my limelight in this way. Yes he's always hated this theatre, been jealous of my success, but really. Spite just spite. Well something must be done about it. The show will go on. Now Sophie, from the part where you discover the body. Jonathan, please sit stiller than that - you are a corpse after all. You have just eaten a chocolate and died a painful death. Rigour mortis may have set in so you are stiff my dear boy. And Sophie, try not to be so wooden. And...."

Sophie entered from the right of the stage, and went (to the best of her abilities) through Highfield's script. The play was quite simple. Sophie was, in character, married to Jonathan who was having an affair. Jonathan decided to kill Sophie by sending her poisoned chocolates. But, in a moment of forgetfulness Jonathan ate a chocolate meant for Sophie and died instead. Enter your stereotypical police inspector and brilliant - but eccentric - detective (the later played by Gareth Highfield) who solves the crime.

"Thank you every body," Gareth's affected voice was raised above the noise of the performers. "Tomorrow is the first dress rehearsal, so please would you all be on time. And do be careful, I don't want to loose any of you my precious, precious people." With those words cast and crew started to drift off, mainly across the village green to the The Stag.

Last to leave and lock up was Gareth. He then too made his way across to the pub. As usual he was alone, partly because very few people wanted to spend time outside of rehearsals with him, and partly because Gareth could make a better entrance on his own.

As with many rural communities, the pub was the centre of night-life in Wykmead. By the time Gareth arrived the cast had settled themselves comfortably behind pints of bitter. For some reason his entrance was not as affective. Quite possibly people had got used to it, or else Gareth was tired and unable to make his usual effort. Whatever the cause was, it impacted on him and, rather than sitting in full view, Gareth found a quiet corner and sat their brooding.

With the weekend having started, The Stag was fuller than a normal week night. Those who commuted to London were seeking therapy from Colonel Haigh, and Misters Guinness and Carling, amongst others. In the snug bar tables had been placed together for a scratch committee meeting for the forth coming village fayre. As they needed the provision of the Church hall in case of "inclement weather" Philip Weaver was present amongst the number. In the absence of Colonel Orr, who also normally chaired the meeting, the Parish Council was represented by Robert Westland. As someone raised a point concerning the positioning of the coconut shy, Robert attempted to stifle a yawn. A fire was blazing in the hearth and the heat coupled with his lack of sleep meant that slumber was the preferable option to the meeting.

Rousing himself, Robert realised someone was asking him a question. It appeared that the business of the meeting was over as the query had to do with the recovery of Colonel Orr. Westland's thoughts were very different from his words. Internally Robert was angry. Really he knew no more than anyone else about how the Colonel was, and was getting tired of people asking.

"I'm sorry." Robert rubbed the collar of his shirt. "But I haven't seen Mrs Orr, or heard any news from anyone about Arnold's recovery."

His questioner was not so easily put off. "What about what people are saying, that the Colonel will be forced to retire."

Robert crossed his arms, and appeared to hug himself. "If I knew anything, which I don't, I wouldn't be able to tell you. Such matters are not made public and its up to his family to make any such announcement.

"Now if you'll excuse me, I really must be getting home."

As Robert rose there was one last comment. "I was speaking to Mrs Orr yesterday in the Post Office. She was saying something about having thought that her husband was talking to someone and..."
The speaker was cut off as glasses went flying, and alcohol mixed on the table. As he tried to leave, Robert had stumbled. "It, it was an accident. Yes an accident." His hand went across his chin. "I caught the table leg" he yawned. "See you all tomorrow". With that Robert left leaving his companions to deal with the mess.

Philip Weaver ignored the mess and watched Robert leave. As he looked out of the window Robert ran past. Almost immediately this was followed by Gareth Highfield.

While the fayre committee was meeting Gareth had been thinking. People were ignoring him and his work of art. And it was all that Colonel's fault. To Gareth, Colonel Orr was a twentieth century vandal and Philistine, completely uncultured. For the focus to have been taken from the play was an unforgivable sin. Finishing his sherry Gareth got up and left the pub to do something about that.

Arriving home Gareth took his copy of the script from his case. Opening a cupboard he took out the period piece of a typewriter on which he worked. Took a fresh sheet of paper and sat down to write.

In The Stag the committee meeting was coming to an abrupt end. The sudden departure of Robert Westland, as well as the need by Philip Weaver to go home and change. As such "any other business" was curtailed. As he stood, the vicar was aware of the uncomfortable feeling caused by wet trousers clinging to skin. He excused himself left.

Arriving home Philip found the light on his answer machine flashing the number two at him. As he changed into a clean pair of trousers, Philip could see his breath form a mist in cold Victorian cottage he called home. Switching on the kettle, Philip pressed play on his answering machine. The first message was the standard query about having a child baptised. The second was much the same, a call concerning a wedding. In spite of himself, Philip was disappointed. Suzette had not rung. He took a Guinness out of the fridge, found a glass and poured out the contents of the can. Switching on the electric heater, Philip settled down to watch the news on the television.

Suzette Goodwin had been out of the village. Her school had been host to a dame of the stage, and as such had put on an old girls day to coincide with a prize giving. Dame Leanne Jacobs, dressed in a dark chocolate dress suit and hat, had performed admirably giving a welcome, but brief, speech. She had then given out the awards. It was unlike Suzette to go, but curiosity had got the better of her. At school Suzette never showed interest in medicine, having expressed her intention on becoming a politician. In the same way many of her contemporaries had failed to achieve their childhood dreams. Ballerinas, actresses, romantic authors, singers, models and "Penelope Pitstop" type heroines had become mothers, teachers, nurses, and retail managers. One, who was always the centre of gossip in school had found her niche as a newspaper columnist, and writer of romantic novels in the style of Jackie Collins, but otherwise many had found contentment in everyday life. Suzette found it strange to see her friends again. While she still thought of them by their maiden names, very few were recognisable as the spotty teenagers who she had shared a dorm with.

As she drove back to her home, Suzette saw Gareth enter his cottage. Getting home, she found a pan out of the cupboard, measured out some milk, and made herself a hot chocolate. As she put the mug to be washed, and switched out the light, Suzette settled down in her bed with pleasant thoughts about the day.

The next morning Robert Westland was out doing his delivery. As he approached Ivy Cottage, a modern building devoid of the creeper, Robert was surprised to see the curtains open. Gareth Highfield was not known as an early riser. Robert delivered his letters and went on his way. As he went past the house, Robert glimpsed Gareth, trug in arm, out in his garden picking sprigs from a plant. Gareth hadn't seen Robert so he was able to continue undisturbed.

Ivy Cottage was a building that could best be described as bastardised mock Tudor. It was built in the style that nineteen eighty's architects thought was fashionable homage. Its current owner had christened the building with its in congruous name, and attempted to create his ideal of what a cottage garden should be. Hollyhocks, tobacco plants, roses, foxgloves and other plants co-existed with resin reproductions of Greek gods and Victorian fairies. A "rustic" bench, a sundial and bird bath finished the garden furniture, giving the space the feeling of an exhibit at Chelsea Flower Show. An ideal crammed full of images but immensely impractical. The exterior of the house had similar echoes of television stereotypes. The woodwork had been painted a dark green, the windows were pvc "period style" double glazing. Each and every detail was set specifically in place. Yet while Gareth Highfield wanted the glamour of the inter-war years, he wanted none of its discomforts. Devoid of servants the fire was gas effect not real coal, and similar concessions to modern living existed, though carefully hidden so not to spoil the set. In this way Gareth was able to continue to live his fantasy at home as well as on the stage.

Setting his basket of flowers on the side, Gareth went into his study. He sat down at his oak coloured desk and opened his typewriter. A sheet of paper sat in the machine. Gareth took it out and read through it. Smiling to himself, Gareth signed his name, folded the paper, found the envelope he had addressed, and put the letter into the envelope. Having set this to one side Gareth pulled out a copy of his master piece, his script, and started to make notes.

"If I move Sophie from the role as the wife to that of the victim's sister, and Jennifer from the sister to the wife. I know its a smaller part, but its a major supporting role. May be it will save the thing.

"I'll play it as 'The reason is, my dear Sophie, its not that you can't act - of course you can. Its just you are a little nervous and I wouldn't want to ruin your career by putting too much pressure on you. This will allow you to get used to the spotlights and the stage without carrying a production.' Her father won't be happy, but it will be too late to pull out now."

Gareth continued to write notes about the play. The play would be saved, and he would bask in its glory.

Chapter 4
The theatre was set ready for the rehearsal, and as Gareth had predicted, the changes were not popular. Sophie was sat in the corner having a hissy fit. She was the star, daddy wanted her to be the star. How could Gareth after all her hard work.

Jennifer on the other hand was looking like a cat who had not only been given the bowl of cream but also a box of caviare. Both were grand dames in the making.

"Of course" warbled Gareth, "if anything should happen to Jennifer you would step back into the role." This was unlikely as the cast had already commented that Jennifer had used Gareth's bed as the casting couch. It was unlikely that the impresario would allow anything to happen to his lover.

With the tears and tantrums the rehearsal rapidly became a wash out. Gareth was even developing a headache. It was therefore decided to cut the time short, and allow things to settle. Sophie flounced out, not bothering to speak with anyone. A number of other followed in her wake. Tugs and yachts in the shadow of a battleship. Jennifer and others stood around and felt the atmosphere lift.

As Gareth walked back from the door, having watched Sophie's white Golf hatch speed off, Jennifer draped herself around his neck. Ivy like in her movement she kissed him on the cheek.

"Darling Gareth, how can I thank you? I'm your leading lady."

Gareth shrugged. It was all too much. While he had expected tantrums, Gareth had underestimated their effect. Detaching himself from his admirer, Gareth announced his inability to cope, and prepared to set off home. Locking up after the stragglers, Gareth departed to his cottage. Arriving home, he got himself a glass of water. Taking a couple of aspirin, Gareth allowed himself a rye smile. While things had not gone smoothly, things had started. No publicity was bad publicity and soon everyone would be talking about the play again.

While Gareth was counting the seconds until the aspirin took their effect, the winners and losers from the production sat around The Stag. Already the grapevine had started to do its job. Gareth would have been pleased with the results of his cast change, for as Jennifer entered the pub the room went quiet. Eyes followed her path as Jennifer went to order a drink. Slowly the whispers gained in number and volume, taking on the effect of wind in the trees.

As the heads of the patrons' turned back towards their companions, Jennifer took her seat amongst her supporters. One pair of eyes remained on her, malice shining brightly. During the silence Sophie had come in through the side entrance and stood, glaring at her replacement and nemesis.

"Well, congratulations Jennifer." Sophie had quietly walked up to where her replacement was sitting. Sophie's smile was reminiscent of a tiger's.

Jennifer's eyes sparkled with joyful spite. "Thank you, Sophie. It's so grown up of you to admit the person with the better performance now has the star part."

Conversations around the bar had started to judder into silence.

"Which performance is that Jennie? Your one on the stage, or the one in Gareth's bed?

"You have the role for now. So make the most of your fifteen minutes of fame, its all your worth."

Jennifer went to slap Sophie's face, but as she spoke Sophie had turn and started to walk away. As such she was out of Jennifer's reach. Sophie's words had had their effect. She had sown seeds of doubt about why Jennifer had been cast, and for now had the upper hand. Those acting lessons Gareth had given her seemed to be paying off.

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Comments by other Members

Friday at 11:56 on 12 May 2004  Report this post

I read this yesterday but had to rush out. So I’m back.

I like how you start with reminding us about Colonel Orr’s ‘accident’ and Gareth’s reaction is perfect – “Stealing my limelight in this way.” - I just love Gareth. :)

Robert Westland is a dark horse – what’s he up to? Hmmmm.

I like how you have Philip Weaver wishing Suzette had called.

The conflict between Jennifer and Sophie is classic – looking forward to see how this goes.

Both chapters end well – what did Gareth type and sign? Love how Sophie ends with the upper hand and confidence.

One typo –

but as she spoke Sophie had ‘turn’ and started to walk away - turned

So much going on I was caught up in Wykmead and the people. Your writing has a tone of conspiracy, I feel there is so much going on below the surface. You write village life so well, it is from experience?

Great stuff,

Phelim at 13:26 on 12 May 2004  Report this post
Thanks for the comments Dawn, and pointing out the typo.

I live in a village in Hampshire where I am involved with the local church and the scout group. The inspiration of the novel comes from village life. We had a hall built where I live which almost split the community. You should have seen the letters in the papers. But what brought the story to life was a comment by a blue rinsed old lady in the local charity shop. And I quote - "its a good thing we don't live in that Midsomer Place of the tele or there'd be a headless body in the village duckpond by Christmas." What a gift to a writer.


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