Friday, 9 April 2010

The Lady and the Tramp

At the bottom of the hill stood three tumbledown cottages. A wealthy property developer bought them during a lull in the market, he allowed them to fall into such a state of disrepair they got condemned - then he evicted the last of the sitting tenants; poor old Betty ... there were protests in the street the day she was carried out. The village had never seen anything like it before. The plan was to pull down the old cottages and rebuild, but before he had the chance to do the dastardly dead his third wife divorced him, suing him for every penny the previous two had not been able to get. His lawyers hid the cottages in a Pension Trust, the property market subsequently collapsed and the property developer was forced to do the minimum amount of work needed to make them habitable, he moved into one of them and rented the other two out. He knew that house prices would rise again and he would make a small fortune from the sale of those three cottages in such a prime location.

The property developer had once been a shrewd, ruthless and successful businessman - Mickey McGee. A stereo-typical Irishman, worked hard and played hard - always the last man left standing in the bar at the rugby club. He may have been handsome once but drink had distorted his features, he had a broken nose - a badge of honour following an incident on the rugby pitch, his hair was still thick, but now white and in his late 60s, he was still a wiry individual. It was drink that did for McGee, drink and three ex-wives determined that they be rewarded for putting up with him. At the time of this story he was bankrupt, living off the meagre rents the other two cottages bought in. He couldn't forget the good times though and his endless bar stories were all about himself and what a great fellow he had once been, what cars he had once driven, what houses he had once owned and what clubs he had once belonged to. He spent all day, every day drinking in the village pub. When he was short of cash he went to the village shop and bought his supplies - the cycle of drinking was never interupted.

Inevitably he got charged with drinking/driving and was banned for two years. He blatantly disregarded the sentence and before long was caught again, the second time he went to prison. Whilst he was away his cottages stood empty.

One day a particularly scruffy and unshaven man went into the village shop; he bought a bottle of whiskey and a packet of cigars "I've come to get the cottages ready. McGee is coming home." The following week he came back, with McGee, they bought two bottles of whiskey, a packet of cigars, a tin of beans and another of corned beef - their daily supplies.

Beth was an elegant woman in her late 40's; she glided rather than walked and wore loose floating dresses, her lightly greying hair was always swept back into a chixgon bun. She moved into the village with her pretty teenage daugther and they rented one of McGees cottages. Beth taught science at one of the private schools nearby, her daughter worked as a waitress in the village pub. The cottage they lived in was shabby but Beth worked hard to transform the garden, hung baskets of flowers on the crumbling walls and ignored the unsubtle advances of her drunken landlord. She was a friendly enough woman, loved rugby, gardening and her daughter. She made beautiful flower arrangements for the Church and was tolerated by most.
On her way home from work each night she would stop in the village shop, talk to the village shop keeper and buy her supplies. Her and the village shop keeper liked each other. One day on her way home she stopped, as usual, at the shop but her friend wasn't there; she didn't notice that he wasn't there until she came to the counter,
"Oh its not your husband here today" she giggled nervously.
No he had just stepped out, so his wife was covering for him.
"I'm just making a casserole," Beth giggled again, a little breathlessly, she was nervously eyeing the two bottles of wine she had placed on the counter. The village shop-keepers wife was also staring at the bottles but she was trying not to draw attention to why she was staring at them - Beth thought it was in judgement. The village shop-keepers wife picked one up and casually checked the seal hadn't been broken.
"I always like to have a small glass whilst I'm cooking" Beth continued. The village shop-keepers wife looked up, don't we all? She smiled briefly and packed the bottles into a carrier bag. Thankfully the seals had both been intact.

It was the summer of 2002 and the country was celebrating the Queens Golden Jubilee. In the village a maypole was erected and dancers came to entertain the village, a huge cream tea was served, childrens races and games organised. A marquee tent was erected and in the evening a band played, a bar-be-que supper was served and everyone danced and drank for hours. Everyone in the village was there. The school teacher was sitting at a table with her landlord, his scruffy friend, another woman and a young couple, obviously in the middle of a lovers tiff. The village shop keeper, his wife, family and friends were sitting on the next table. Beth was laughing and flirtatious, she danced with the shop keeper, with McGee, his scruffy friend and the other man sitting with them. Quiet mousy Beth let herself go and was enjoying herself; everyone said how nice it was that she was "letting her hair down".

The property market started to rise and McGee sold one of the cottages for more than he had originally paid for all three. Over the next few months the curtains twitchers started noticing that McGee was spending a lot of time in his tenant's home. Throats cleared whenever Beth approached a group, knowing looks and nods were exchanged. One day when Beth went into the shop it was noted that her hair was not as neatly gripped back as usual and she staggered as she walked to collect her casserole ingredients, she was crying when she reached the counter. She had lost her job that day - she didn't know why she said, the village keeper guessed it might have something to do with being tipsy once too often at work but just made soothing noises and suggested Beth take a local paper to look for another job. Once she was at home all day Beth no longer pretended to be making casseroles, she no longer shunned her landlord and she stopped making an effort with her appearance. It wasn't long before McGee moved into her cottage and her daughter moved out. After one long and rowdy drinking session Beth and McGee got banned from the village pub and then bought all their supplies from the village shop; they cashed a couple of cheques there but after two bounced this practise was stopped. They once produced a cheque signed by Beth's daughter, the village shop keeper kept it and walked up to the pub where Beths daughter worked, the daughter admitted she had not signed the cheque.

One day McGee was caught shop lifting in one of the supermarkets in town and appeared in court. Soon after the shop lifting appearance McGee was caught drink/driving under a ban (again) and for a while it looked like another prison sentence. Miraculously he was let off with a fine and a community service order - he had used a hospital visit to his now 'finance' (Beth) as his defence. Beth had been in hospital, her first episode of liver failure. One autumn day the roads to the village were flooded and Beth got stuck in puddle, the fire services arrived to rescue her but she refused to leave the car, the police were called and Beth was charged with drink/driving. She lost her license.

With no means of transport the pair were now almost fully dependant upon the village shop. One wet winter afternoon the village shop-keepers wife was out walking her dogs when she found Beth asleep, drunk under a hedge. She helped her up and took her home, Beth wasn't just wet from lying on the grass, she had soiled herself. She spoke confidentially to the Man of God "That loser?" the Rector said "Honestly a complete waste of time."

One day Beth and McGee entered the village shop barely able to stand, they were refused permission to buy alcohol. The pair left outraged that they had been unable to buy their supplies - it was the last time Beth ever went out of her cottage. She took to her bed that day and 3 weeks later she was found dead.

Her funeral was a quiet affair - the village shop keepers wife went alone and sat near the back of the Church. The Man of God said lots of complimentary things about Beth, her first husband said a lot more, hinting that his beautiful wife had always had a problem with controlling her drinking (nobody wanted to hear that - they all wanted to believe McGee had killed her). Her daughter sat sobbing loudly throughout the service. McGee sat a few rows behind the village shop keepers wife, being supported by his daughter and his scruffy friend. There were a lot of people the village shop keepers wife didn't know at the funeral - people who had known Beth in a previous life, people who would not have recognised the woman she had helped home when she was too drunk to find her own way there one wet winters afternoon.

McGee lived for another two or three months, he was in and out of hospital during those final months but he couldn't or didn't want to change the habits of a life time. He died quickly and quietly in a hospital bed.

The shopkeeper went to McGees funeral; the villagers were going to boycott it and he thought that was unfair. McGee was an unpleasant man but he had not been the cause of Beth's death. The Church was overflowing - full of people who had known McGee when he captained the rugby team, when he was a rich property developer - none of them would have recognised the dirty tramp that he had become. The village pub, which he was banned from during his life took more that afternoon than it had done the whole of the previous month.

McGees children had the two remaining cottages fumigated and sold them for a small fortune - McGees instinct had been correct, they were in a prime location. The Great and Good of the village were outraged.