Beware of the Beautiful Stranger

(With thanks to Pete Atkin and Clive James for the song)

Iain Paul Carmichael, IP to his colleagues, Paul to his mother and Daddy to his beloved daughter, successful business owner, happily married to the gorgeous Sylvia and recent arrival in the village was smiling. It was a fine late spring day, the sun high in a pale blue cloudless sky; a comfortable warmth to the air and a gentle breeze on his face. This was why he moved out of the city.

The Marsden Village Annual Carnival was a lingering remnant of a more agricultural age. It exuded a rustic charm rarely to be found nowadays. You will come across places like this scattered all across England, small villages with a long history and mostly in decline. But, Marsden was changing. In an effort to revive its fading fortunes the Parish Council agreed to the building of an estate of luxury houses on previously agricultural land and an influx of new people had brought new life to the place. The incomers tried to revive old customs and old traditions; being rootless themselves they unconsciously thought they could recapture a bit of Olde England to give them a sense of belonging however shallow that might be.

Far from the sophistication they were used to, the Marsden Village Annual Carnival gave these wealthy newcomers a chance to mix with the village worthies and at least give the impression that they were part of the community. Some of the veterans of these events, especially those who opposed the building of the luxury estate, thought the influx of the upper middle classes with their nasal whines and shiny cars were spoiling the character of their beloved village. These had dwindled in number as the money flowed through the pub, the village post office, the stables and the farm shop. After years of gentle decline the place was coming alive again. Different certainly but, for the first time in many decades there was a sense of optimism abroad and this year’s carnival looked like being the biggest and best attended that many could remember.

The Burberry wearing  newcomer’s wives took part in the preparation of the event, organising fund raising, badgering their wealthy husbands to sponsor the “Whack a Rat” challenge or give up an afternoon to help run the second hand book stall. They organised a tea room in the village hall complete with their own home baking and a competition for the best biscuits.  These ladies were instrumental in persuading the local landlord to get a license for a beer tent and donate half of the takings to the repair of the church roof. For the grumpy, atheistic innkeeper this innovation was to prove more profitable than he imagined.

The beer tent persuaded the more reluctant newcomers to take part. They spread their largesse, buying pints for local folk they didn’t know and slowly through the afternoon a strained bonhomie developed as the beer was consumed in larger and larger quantities. The newcomers could afford it and at worst it would top up their fading winter tans from holidays on the ski slopes of Switzerland before the summer holidays in which ever sunny paradise was in fashion this year.

The elders of the village sat around the arena on fold up chairs and smiled indulgently, nodding at passing acquaintances, puffing on pipes and supping dark brown beer; feeling the heat of the sun easing the pains in their ancient bones. A caricature of village fairs of the past when agriculture was king certainly but former PM John Major would have been proud. What the carnival lacked in sophisticated entertainment was amply bolstered by the undoubted enthusiasm of many of the participants, especially the children. Free in the sun after a long, dark, damp winter they ran from stall to stall, ate sticky candy floss, and played tag often chased by laughing parents.

Iain looked down at his daughter her hand clutching his as she pulled against his mock reluctance.

“Daddy! Hurry up daddy; I want to go on the trampoline!” her four year old voice high and scolding, as she dragged him towards the summer fair.

He laughed and began to speed up, “Okay Okay, C’mon then. Trampoline it is – as long as I don’t have to go on it.”

“You’re too big!” she replied, hands on hips, with the nose in the air superiority only a four year old could muster.

The entrance to the fair was crowded with families jostling to get through the narrow entrance to the village green. Paul lifted his daughter on to his shoulders to keep her from being bumped or tripped. She squealed with delight.

“I can see the trampolines!” She yelled, her excited, high pitched voice eliciting smiles from the parents around them. She wiggled on his shoulders making him reach up to steady her.

“Easy now be careful it’s a long way down.”

She only giggled, grabbed his hair like reins and slapped her heels on his chest.

“Giddy-up horsey. Faster!”

He laughed again and poorly imitated a pony’s whinny making pawing motions in the air with his hands as if he was a rearing horse. Iain Paul Carmichael was a happy man.

Once through the gate the crowd spread out and they joined the short queue for the trampolines at the furthest corner of the village green. The happy screeches from children on the other attractions floated over on the breeze. While they waited for their allotted five minutes, the announcements of events in the arena crackled on an elderly PA system calling all to the excitement of the dog show.

“Mongrel judges to the tent please.”

Paul tried not to laugh and he could see the tightening of the lips and crinkling round the eyes on the faces around him as they stifled the urge to giggle.

He dutifully paid his fifty pence and watched as his daughter began bouncing, her blonde hair alternately down on her shoulders and up in the air as she rose and fell on the trampoline. Paul felt arms encircling his waist and pulling tight.

“Hello love.” he said, “how are you feeling?”  He turned inside her clasp and returned the hug.

“You know what morning sickness is like, once it’s over it’s over.”

Together they watched their daughter bounce.

When her time was finished, puffed out and pink from exertion, she hugged her mum’s legs.

“Can I have a drink please?” She panted.

Hand in hand the three strolled back to the main attractions. For the next hour or so they toured the Carnival. Paul threw some very unconvincing darts and won nothing. He bought a few of the books he had donated to the book stall and several others he was never going to read. Sylvia bought a few unnecessary bits of bric-a-brac that would undoubtedly go straight into the rubbish bin as soon as they got home. All in a good cause. Their daughter gorged on sweets and fizzy drinks, her clothes and hands becoming increasingly sticky. She oohed and aahed at the antics of a mediocre magician, fell into then just as quickly out of love with the animals on display and generally worked herself up to a state of hyper-excitement that would soon end in tears if they weren’t careful. In other words a fine time was had by all.

Sylvia whispered in Paul’s ear, “I think I’d better get her home, she looks exhausted.”

Paul was reluctant to break the spell, but seeing his daughters flushed face, he realised that Sylvia was probably right, she was beginning to wilt.

“Okay, I’ll come with you.”

Sylvia pecked in on the cheek, “Don’t worry, Go and have a beer – see if you can’t get to know a few of the locals. We’ll be fine.”

“If you’re sure.”

“Of course I am! Go on, you’ve been eyeing that beer tent for the last twenty minutes.”

He didn’t feel he could contradict her. He kissed his wife, hugged his daughter farewell and sauntered towards the beer tent.

On the way across he spotted a tent he hadn’t previously seen, hidden away in a corner, purple, gold and crimson festooned with stars and planets, “Fortunes Told” embroidered on the fading fabric, a hand written sign pinned to a stake in the ground “Tarot Readings, £1.00”. He frowned trying to recall what it reminded him of, an old song, one his Dad played incessantly after the divorce, but he couldn’t quite nail it down. The call of the beer soon put paid to his introspection. He ducked under the awning and was immediately spotted by one of the few people in the village he had already met.

“Paul! Paul old man over here!”

His newly acquired and clearly inebriated neighbour was beckoning from the end of the bar. Fixing a smile on his face Paul walked over.

“What’ll you have old man? There’s beer, warm beer, almost cold lager and if you ask me nicely I have a decent malt in my rucksack.” The last offering delivered soto voce followed by a tap on the side of his nose and an exaggerated knowing wink.

“Beer’s fine Tony, warm or otherwise.”

“Barkeep! Barkeep! A pint of your finest ale for my friend here!”

He waved his hand in the air before grabbing Paul’s jacket to save himself from toppling off the stool. Paul winced at the volume and the tone, the assumption of the superiority of the newly wealthy and the inclusion of him in that category. He held his hand up to the barman in apology for his associate’s rudeness and got a nod in return. A few of the locals sitting at the nearest table sniggered; they were well aware that Tony was being hugely overcharged for the drink he was buying and were perfectly content with the arrangement. The extortion ensured every second pint for them was free.

Tony introduced his drinking buddies, an accountant, a lawyer, and a few others that were “in business” as they described it. For the most part they were around Paul’s age, give or take, and by the glittering of expensive watches and the designer labels on their polo shirts they were well off. Paul should have felt at home, but something made him cautious.

The carnival was winding down, the kids heading home for their dinner, mothers shooing reluctant children off the village green.  The final event was in preparation. The Tug O’ War, inter-village rivalry at its height, teams from the surrounding villages competing in a trial of strength. The winner holding bragging rights for a year, this was serious.

Paul was glad of the distraction as Tony cajoled his companions out into the evening sunshine. “Come on Marsden!” he yelled as the long heavy rope was laid out. Muscle bound farm hands in stout boots appeared at either end of the heavy rope, testosterone heavy in the still air. Paul was slightly dizzy from three quick pints on an empty stomach, the setting sun making him squint across the field.

Paul looked away, the fortune tellers tent had disappeared and he returned his gaze to the field of battle. A gorgeous, blonde young lady dressed in a short red dress bent over the thick rope and with a flourish tied her crimson scarf halfway along it.

His Dad’s song suddenly played across his mind, Pete Atkin, a guitar and the words “For the damned there is always a stranger, a total and beautiful stranger.” He shivered.

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