The sun rose to herald the start of a beautiful spring day. The snows and winds of winter seemed to have happened to a faraway world in a faraway time, and summer felt only the swoop of a swallow away. This was May, and for the residents of Newbury, it was the day of the spring fete.
Newbury was big on tradition, no more so than with on fete day. Horace had run a stall as the ‘Guess your Age’ man there for years. Over time, he had got so good that if you handed him your uncle, a stoat or a steamed pudding, he could tell you their age with remarkable precision.
By 9am, he was already setting up his pitch as he always did, to the right on the bandstand, on the sunny side of a lime tree. As he pulled on his top hat and red velvet jacket embroidered with golden question marks, he could not help but whistle Camptown Races, his preferred tune for such happy moments as these.
“Bloody Campton piggin’ races,” muttered Alex, who loathed Horace and pretty much all of the other stall holders with a passion.
Alex was setting up next to Horace. His was the ‘Hook the Duck’ stall. Every winter Alex diligently rubbed down the wooden ducks and gave them a fresh lick of paint, polished the hooks, and replaced any bamboo rods that were not gun barrel straight. He also bred the goldfish he would hand out as prizes for successful participants.
The crowds had always found Horace’s age predictions remarkable, and their gasps and cheers as he correctly aged their jewellery, fossils and cousins would drift across Alex’s much less popular booth while he stood wishing that a few might come across and have a go at his ducks instead.
It seemed that public opinion had turned against the issue of live goldfish as prizes in recent years, particularly since the Berkshire Wildlife Trust had started to pitch their display next to his, their tethered birds of prey always more focussed on his hanging bags of goldfish than the admiring fete goers who lined up to see them. But Alex was not going to be beaten by what he considered to be eco-fascists or indeed anyone else this year.
He seethed as he recalled previous fetes, with Horace’s stall being as busy as a diabetes clinic after Easter Sunday, while his ducks were left untroubled and bobbing in their circular pool, the goldfish already looking forward to returning home to their pond later on.
And it seemed that every year Horace was in the sunshine, whilst he was shaded by the tree where it could still feel chilly in May. This year, as if to rub it in, Horace’s beautiful daughter, Poppy, was to be May Queen at the head of the procession whilst his own son, Eric would be elsewhere, undertaking Community Service at a suitable distance away as deemed appropriate by the local magistrate.
“Here, Old Father time!” he called to Horace, seeing no harm in giving him a nickname, particularly a slightly desultory one.
“Yes, Duck Egg?” Horace replied entering into a gentle banter that Alex found unnecessary and vile.
“My Carol’s baked some cakes for the tea stall – I got a fondant fancy for ya. Catch.”
He threw over a slightly squashed cake that sat suffocated in the same type of plastic bag that his goldfish were decanted into.
“Erm, that’s very kind,” said Horace in a tone that suggested he really did not want the sad looking package of sugar, caustic-looking yellow food colouring and melted icing.
“Eat it!” demanded Alex, softening this by adding: “She’ll cry if nobody likes them.”
“Oh dear, we can’t have that,” said Horace who unpeeled the unappealing confection from its plastic sheath and brought it to his mouth. Not used to lying, the words “Mmm, that’s delicious” did not come easy for him.
“That’ll be 50p,” said Alex.
“What? Oh, 50p – here you go,” replied Horace rather thinking he had been lulled into believing the foul fancy to be a gift.
“Hmm,” said Alex rather disingenuously, pocketing the money and waiting for the drugged cake to take its effect.
The fete began and the crowds oiled in, many making their way straight to the ‘Guess your Age’ station as usual. However, instead of the Horace’s usual bang-on suppositions, the clouding and dyscalculiating effect of the adulterated fancy had kicked in.
Horace slurred out 208 for a Shetland pony, 42 for a lump of sedimentary limestone and 57 for a petri-dish of bacilli. An 82-year-old woman who had hoped her youthful appearance to confound him into stating her being no older than 77 was brought to tears when he declared her to be 2,748. Of course the crowd were horrified, and started to tut-tut, leave the queue and console themselves with a turn at duck-hooking, much to Alex’s sniggering delight.
Horace, now alone at his stall and with mind spinning like a beasel at a flapper dance, put his head in his hands and garbled “wtah aws in taht blodoy cake” to himself.
Word of the Guess your Age man’s charlatan conjectures spread around the fete like news of a bear approaching a honey party, with many potential attendees turning away from the entrance gate as dissatisfied fete goers stormed out.
In the beer tent, Poppy had undone the top buttons of her May Queen’s dress, slipped a carton of B&H under her bra strap and was now sharing gaudy stories and a few pints of ‘Old Dogsbreath’ with a raucous jangle of beardy Morris Men when a child burst in.
“Poppy!” he shouted. “Come quick – your Dad’s gone mad – he’s making as much sense as a Dutchman singing ‘Ten Green Bottles’."
Poppy picked up her skirts and basket of puppies and legged it through the stalls and past lots of people – each carrying a small plastic bag and wondering what the hell they were going to do with its incumbent goldfish. She screeched to a halt in front of the lime tree where Alex stood supervising many duck-hookers with a huge pyramid of money built up behind him, while her father lay prostrate and dribbly, singing the last bars of ‘Tien Groene Flessen’.
“Dad, – what’s happened?” She slapped him across the face in an attempt to break him from his stupor and noticed yellow crumbs on his face. She sniffed the sickly smidgens. “That’s fondant fancy,” she announced to those around her. “Hang on, it's drugged with, let me think,” she sniffed again – “Swarfega, Three-in-One oil and Toilet Duck”. She pointed accusingly at Alex and proclaimed “It was him – you will find his hands grime-free and protected from chapping, his bicycle wheels don’t squeak and I sense that his toilet is sparkling.”
“Hey – I know that man,” said the sweetie van operator who had come to see what the fuss was all about. “He threw spiders into my candyfloss machine.”
“I know him too,” said the very tall man with one leg very much longer than the other. “He sawed one of my stilts in two while I went to the loo.”
“He’s the one who threw my wellies into the canal,” dismayed the man who had been overseeing the Throw-your-Wellie stand.
“And he’s the one who stole our batons from the van,” piped up the Dagenham Girl Pipers in frenzied unison.
It turned out that everyone had a grievance against Alex: Kids had found dog pooh planted in the lucky dip, the metal hoop that needed to be steered around a mazy length of wire had been connected to the mains, and a firebomb had gone off in the tumbling ticket barrel of the tombola.
“Get him!” shouted everyone.
Alex turned to make a run for it, gathering slingshot speed from a revolution of the tea cup ride then passing through the long plastic tube of the dog agility display faster than any terrier. He threw a few coconuts at his chasers before jumping the tape and into the central parade field where the Newbury Classic Vehicle Society were displaying. Unfortunately for Alex, he did not choose the Italian Ferrari or German Porsche to demand a rapid getaway, but rather the British Austin Allegro, which sputtered at the weight of a second person aboard, misfired then conked out in an obstinate pique of smoke.
The Morris men jingled their way around him, an angry mob of linen, paunches and beer fumes. The accordionist changed tune and they began to rotate around him in an ungainly and hoppity dance, all interlocking their sticks at a pre-determined moment to leave Alex confined in a circular matrix of wooden struts.
They rolled him to the edge of the adjacent Kennet & Avon Canal as the fete goers cheered and the Dagenham Girl Pipers found their missing batons under his duck pool.
Over the tinny tannoy a countdown was conducted by a local celebrity that no one had ever heard of at the end of which Poppy, as May Queen, was allowed to boot Alex into the water with a painfully placed kick of her ceremonial DMs while the crowd threw his ducks and goldfish into the water after him.
“Hey! I want a fiver on duck number 6,” shouted a child.
“And I’ll have a monkey on 13,” called another.
“I tills feel scik,” groaned Horace.
In no time all, every duck had been backed and the impromptu race was on; the first duck to fall over the weir some 500 yards downstream would be declared winner, with much money about to be raised for the fete to boot. Number 12 won, the ducks were all smashed in their plunge through the tumbling rapids while the goldfish settled in to their new home.
As for Alex, he was pulled from the fetid water coughing and spluttering like the Austin Allegro by his son Eric, who was scrubbing his graffiti off the bridge three miles downstream.
“Looks like you’ve had a fete-ful day, Dad,” Eric guffawed.
Alex just glared and shook a stickleback from his hair.
You can read more of Martin Strike's stories at thenewburyshortstoryteller.wordpress.com