Brian M. Milton
"Hello, I'm Mrs. Heath. I hear you have a Friendly problem."
Lydia Jenkins was dumbfounded. She may only have lived in the village of Saltdene for two weeks but they had been the most unpleasant two weeks of her life which, as she worked in advertising, was saying something. It was certainly not the rural idyll she had expected when she agreed to move there. Jeremy was going to get a stern talking to when he came down from Town on the weekend. The village and its inhabitants had been increasingly rude and strange and this possibly counted as the rudest and strangest thing yet.
Standing on Lydia's front door step were two women. Both at least in their sixties. Steel grey hair, round cheeks, pastel twin-sets and handbags that could disable a soldier. The one in front was large, round and in a blue cardigan that looked more held captive than worn. The rear appeared a good deal thinner, although most of her was hidden from view. The one in front spoke again.
"I'm Mrs. Heath. From the WI. You've not been looking after your Friendlies have you?"
Lydia was not going to take an insult like this lying down. "I beg your pardon! I have a problem with being friendly? I will have you know I've done my best to be as friendly as possible. It's not easy moving down from London, bringing all your work with you, to some tiny village no one has heard of in Hampshire or Wiltshire or wherever this is. I have a deadline coming up for a new gossip weekly and the welcome here is not helping."
The two old ladies tutted and exchanged knowing looks. Then the one at the front spoke again. "Oh I'm sure you have dear. Wasting your time writing nonsense on these modern flibbertigibbets on the television. We're not here about that. Young Silas told me you have a problem and, with your big city ways, you have no idea what to do?"
Lydia was now entirely lost. This woman was talking utter rubbish. "Young Silas?"
"Your neighbour to the back, across Bentick's field."
Lydia turned to look past the side of her house towards the field beyond. "Oh, the old man. Mr. Grout?"
"No, his son, Young Silas. Mr. Grout died just after Wilson resigned. Or was it Heath? They all go past so fast, these politicians. But I have no intention of discussing your neighbours or politics on the doorstep. Mind the way."
The old woman walked in. She didn't barge her way in, just one minute Lydia was barring the way, the next a strange woman was heading for the kitchen while Lydia still held the door.
The thinner lady stepped up to the door and spoke in a much softer voice. "Just go with it dear. It's for your own good. Excuse me." She pushed past and followed her friend along the corridor.
"Now wait here!" Lydia turned and followed them. At the door she stopped. The smaller woman was pulling a mixing bowl from her handbag, along with a wooden spoon, a whisk and a sieve. The one who had identified herself as Mrs. Heath was pulling eggs, flour, sugar and butter from her bag and adding them to the growing pile on the kitchen table.
"What on earth are you two up to? Is this another part of your horrid village's initiation, along with the petty thefts and the vandalism? I'm sure you all think you are so clever, winding up the new comer."
Mrs. Heath held her hand up, palm towards Lydia. "Mavis, put the oven on would you dear? As for you Lydia dear, because you are new here I shall let this insolence pass. A cup of tea would help though."
Lydia nodded and, before she realised, she had put the kettle on and was getting three mugs down from the cupboard. She paused, staring at the teabags as if they had grown wings and flown there. Why was she doing what this woman had said?
Mrs. Heath nodded, satisfied to see the kettle on, and held her hand out. Mavis hurried over from the oven and handed over a set of electronic weighing scales. Mrs. Heath grabbed a dish and weighed out the eggs. "So dear, I'll have two sugars and milk, Mavis here doesn't have any sugar. That doctor over in Pepperdene has her on a diet for some reason. So, do you want to tell me about your Friendly problem?"
The kettle clicked off and, as if running on a beverage making version of auto-pilot, Lydia poured boiling water over the teabags in the mugs. "Why do you keep saying I have a friendliness problem? I was known for my socialising back up in London."
Mavis came round the kitchen table. "Do you have any sherry dear? No, didn't think you would so I brought some of my own." Mavis produced a part-full bottle of sherry from her handbag. "Just a little drop in the tea should help and then you can answer Mrs. Heath's questions."
Lydia looked on aghast as the woman poured a tot of sherry into each mug. "It is eleven o'clock in the morning and I have work to do."
"Quite the best reason for sherry I can think of." Mavis put the bottle down and looked guiltily at Mrs. Heath. "Provided you don't go mad of course."
Mrs. Heath sighed heavily as she weighed out the flour and sugar and butter. "I don't think we want to be going over your old problems now do we Mavis. As for you Lydia dear," Mrs. Heath paused in a small cloud of flour, "We will have to approach this more slowly. So Lydia, tell me about the things that have been happening since you arrived. "
Lydia had been in the house just one week. The idea of living a slower life in the country had appealed and she had jumped at the chance when Jeremy explained that his parent’s house was empty. Lydia had breezed around the house, making plans to knock through from the dining room into the kitchen to create "a proper farmhouse kitchen", measuring up for curtains, throwing up suggestions for paint colours and pointing eagerly at photos of Aga ovens online. She had been so happy that discovering someone had left the back door open and the external tap running on the Sunday morning had not bothered her one bit. The fact Jeremy had denied doing this when she brought it up did annoy her slightly but she was soon lost in a paint website, issue forgotten.
Jeremy went back up to Town on the early train on Monday morning. They had agreed he would stay in London during the week (his work mostly involved being arrogant in wine bars at night) and so Lydia was in the house on her own on Tuesday morning when she picked up her Wellington Boots.
They were oddly heavy. Lydia carefully lifted one and gave it a shake. The boot sloshed and a little dash of water fell on the concrete floor. Lydia walked into the kitchen and turned the boot upside down over the sink. A bootful of water sploshed out and sluiced down the plughole. Lydia looked quizzically into the boot and then returned to the porch. There was the second boot, totally dry on the outside and no water around about it. Lydia picked it up and again heard it slosh. "Who on earth?" Lydia took this boot to the back door and tried the handle. It was locked. She unlocked it and emptied the boot outside on to the step. She then shook her head. "Jeremy, I don't know how you did it but I will kill you when I see you on Friday."
On Thursday morning a young Police Constable arrived at the front door and rang the bell. He had barely lifted his finger from the bell when the door whipped open. "Oh thank God you've come."
"Mrs. Jenkins? You rang the station about some tools?"Lydia came outside and pointed round the side of the house. "This way. All my tools, all over the garden. Some little toerag has broken into my shed and thrown them around."
"I see." The Constable walked round the house and looked at the garden. "Did you leave the door to the shed open Mrs. Jenkins?"
"No of course I didn't."
"It’s just that it doesn’t look damaged."
"Well no, they must have had a key, as they locked it after them."
"Locked it after them?" The Constable looked around the garden once more. "Well I shall have an ask around the village but might I suggest you leave out a saucer of milk."
Lydia's face turned red as her voice rose. "Milk? Are you an idiot? I don't have a stray cat problem. You will treat this problem seriously or your Chief Constable will hear about this."
(Mavis nudged Mrs. Heath. "That's our Tony she's talking about. Maybe we should just leave her to it."
Mrs. Heath shook her head. "She doesn't know what she's saying. We know your Tony was right. Now, have you got the cake cases?" Mavis handed over a set of paper cases and a metal cake tray. Mrs. Heath waved a spoon covered in mixture at Lydia. "Carry on dear.")
Friday afternoon Jeremy phoned to say he would have to work the weekend. Something about making up for all the time he had just had off. Lydia put the phone down on the coffee table and sank back into the sofa. She had not wanted to say anything to Jeremy but she was not happy. All day she had heard wailing. The sound of a cat being tortured. It had ebbed and flowed around the house. Sometimes so quiet she could believe she had imagined it. Twice so loud it had drowned out the television. But never from the same place twice and always out of the blue. Each time Lydia jumped up and ran to the window, trying to spot where it was coming from but she could see nothing.
Suddenly there was a bang and she leapt out of her seat. She rushed through to the back of the house where the kitchen door was wide open. She shut the door and turned the key in the lock. Lydia then shakily returned to the sitting room and poured herself a large glass of wine. No sooner had she done this than there was another bang.
Lydia raced back to the kitchen to find the back door open once more. She ran over and shouted into the night. "You can't scare me. I won't stand for it you hear." before she slammed the door shut and locked it. She then removed the key and dropped it into a drawer in the kitchen.
Lydia returned to the sitting room and picked up her wine, taking a great gulp. She nearly spat it back out as once again there was a bang. Lydia picked up the open bottle of wine and brought it with her into the kitchen, brandishing it as an unwise club while simultaneously trying not to spill it. Seeing there was no one there she put the glass and bottle on the kitchen table. Took the key from the drawer and once again locked the back door. She put the key on the table in from of her and sat down, taking up her glass in both hands. "Let’s see you try that again whoever you are?"
Lydia sat there for the entire bottle of wine, her eyes flitting between the back door and her glass. And then a bottle of white that she found in the fridge. The back door did not move again and eventually she fell asleep where she was.
The next day Lydia woke up still at the table. She yawned and stretched. "So, have you tried anything else?" She made her way unsteadily to the kitchen door and out into the garden. Nothing looked to have been disturbed. Lydia smiled. "Hah, not so brave when I'm keeping an eye are you. I shall get Jeremy to write to his uncle in the council. See if we can't get these youths an ASBO." Lydia turned to go inside when a voice shouted.
"Hello? Mrs. Jenkins?" It came from the far end of the garden and an old man in two shirts, three jumpers and a tweed jacket so well worn you could almost see through it. He pushed his cap back on his head and called again. "Mrs. Jenkins? Your outside tap is running."
Lydia turned to see that he was correct. She turned the tap closed and then made her way to the fence where the old man, their neighbour Mr. Grout, was standing. "Thank you for that Mr. Grout. I've been having some trouble with the local kids. They think it's funny to wind up the new people."
Mr. Grout took off his cap and screwed it up between his hands. "I don't think it's kids Mrs. Jenkins. They know better than to try anything round here. The Friendlies don't like it"
Lydia, a hangover developing, scowled. "You're not saying this was adults?"
Mr. Grout shook his head. "Oh no. I'm just saying you ought to try putting out some milk or maybe some biscuits."
"Milk? Have you been talking to that idiot policeman?"
"Policeman?" Mr. Grout looked at Lydia, red in the face and with her hair looking as if she had just walked past a high voltage generator. He unsubtly checked his watch and retreated across the field. "Sorry, got to go. Will let the WI know."
Lydia shook her head, her hangover building into a proper headache and took herself off to bed.
Lydia deeply inhaled the scent of cakes gently cooking. It brought back happy memories of childhood and visiting her gran. It also brought a big smile to her face.
"Thank you dear." Mrs. Heath finished her tea and put the mug down on the table. "Mavis, if you would dear?" Mavis stood up and mutely filled the kettle. She then put three tea bags in the mugs and once again added a shot of sherry. "The question is will the smell attract them? We have to make sure they know these are for them, not something they have stolen. Funny things, the Friendly People, they can easily get the wrong idea. You think you're keeping them sweet but they're actually just escalating their mischief." Mrs. Heath lent forward, making the table creak as she put her weight on it. She continued in a stage whisper, "I think they might be a bit simple, bless 'em. Sneaky and sometimes downright nasty. But not actually that bright. Suppose they don't have to be, considering."
Lydia took her now refilled mug. "I really have no idea what you're talking about."
"Of course you don't dear. You townies with your internets and your traffic lights are all so caught up in your science and your technology you have no idea how the world actually works." Mrs. Heath sighed loudly and then took a deep breath. "What do you think Mavis? Time to take them out?"
Mavis quickly added a second shot of sherry to Lydia's mug before she could complain and then turned towards the oven. She took a deep breath and wiggled her nose, almost as if she were swirling the smells around her head. "Another five minutes I would say."
Mrs. Heath stood up. "Very good. Best nose in the WI our Mavis. Never overdoes a cake and can spot a bad egg at ten paces in its box. So, butter icing." Mrs. Heath clapped her hands together and the kitchen suddenly became a whirl of activity. More bowls were produced, and a whisk. Without knowing how, Lydia found herself mixing the butter icing while the other two set out racks and plates. Lydia whisked at the butter and sugar, the sherry giving her a warm buzz that kept the nagging doubts about these two ladies at bay. Mrs. Heath and Mavis then took out the cakes, which smelled truly gorgeous to Lydia, and set them to cool.
They then discussed a jumble sale in two weeks’ time and whether "Young Alan" and "That Baldwin Girl" needed stopping. Lydia listened to five minutes of this before suddenly halting her beating.
"Hang about. Are you two just going to gossip in my kitchen while I work?"
Mrs. Heath crossed her arms over her chest. "Only for the next two minutes. Then we have to prepare the cakes. Nice peaks by the way."
Lydia blushed, then followed Mrs. Heath's gaze to the bowl of stiff butter icing. "Oh, thank you." She blushed again, suddenly feeling like her mother had caught her looking at boys.
Mavis leaned over the cooling cakes and inhaled deeply, once again wiggling her nose. Then she nodded. "They are ready Mrs. Heath."
"Right O. Mavis, you can cut them, young girl, you can apply the icing and I will finish them off.
Ten minutes later and twelve fairy cakes stood neatly on a large platter. Each with a layer of butter icing and the top neatly arranged in two wings. They practically shone with the promise of a glorious flavour. Mrs. Heath stepped back from giving them a light dusting of icing sugar and looked them over.
"A fine set of fairies there Mavis. Would give them a run for their money at the county show if I went in for that sort of nonsense. Now then Mavis, the candles if you will?"
Mavis pulled out four candles which she arranged around the plate of cakes and then lit. Mrs. Heath took hold of Lydia's arm and pulled her towards the dresser. "Just stop over here dear. You don't want to disturb them."
Once again Lydia was completely lost. These two women had forced their way in and bombarded her with tea, sherry, baking and gossip. Never giving her a chance to gather herself or demand an explanation. They had done it with so much authority, acting all the time as if it was perfectly natural. But finally, as she was steered around her own kitchen, a sliver of rebellion returned. Lydia dug her heels in and did not move.
"Now see here Mrs. Heath. This is my kitchen and I will stand where I want. How dare you burst in here and, and, and, bake." The wind immediately left Lydia's sails once more. "Baking. Two woman burst into my house and bake at me. It is ridiculous. How could I even start to explain this to Jeremy?'
Mrs. Heath took Lydia's arm again and steered her towards the dresser. "It is ridiculous my dear. But if you don't want something worse to happen to you, you will ignore that and stand over here for five minutes." Lydia moved meekly over and leaned against the dresser as Mavis took another deep breath.
"They're here Mrs. Heath." Mavis stepped over to the dresser and stood beside the older lady.
"About time, you would think they would be quicker considering when this was last done." Mrs. Heath stepped forward and raised her voice. "Well met Friends Of The Land. We thank you for allowing us to share the land with you and offer you a token of our esteem." She then stepped back and a hush descended.
There was a pregnant pause, all three women holding their breath. Not that Lydia knew why. Her head was now buzzing from the sherry, making it hard to think. Who were these friends Mrs. Heath had just spoken to and why were they Lydia's problem? What did they have to do with the trouble she had? Then she heard something. A scurrying. A rustling. Oh my god, mice!
Lydia was about to burst out in a scream when something infinitely more surprising appeared from the gap between the oven and the cupboard next to it. It was a small, green man. Six inches high, wearing furry trousers and shirt and with a crest of Mohican hair that would have pleased many a punk. His proportions were odd, his feet, hands and head all too big for his body but it did not seem to affect his ability to walk. He stepped out into the open and then looked straight at the three women. He regarded each carefully, looking them up and down. When he looked at Lydia she felt a burning sensation pass over her, almost as if his anger was physically affecting her. Then he turned to Mrs. Heath and grinned.
Lydia found the grin most disturbing of all. His mouth was full of tiny pointed teeth and reminded her of a shark documentary she had once seen. She felt sure that, for all the pleasure it was trying to convey, the little man's grin could very quickly turn into a frightening snarl of hate and anger.
The green creature then bowed extravagantly, nearly doubling over. Mrs. Heath smiled back and curtsied.
As she straightened up with a little wince of pain the little man suddenly darted towards the table and leapt onto the top. In amongst all the other strangeness of this moment seeing a small green man jump eight times his height on to a table probably counted as the strangest. Once on the table the little man surveyed the cakes. He turned to the three women and nodded. Then turned back to the cakes and advanced on them. He carefully put out a hand and broke off a crumb from the side of one which he slowly ate. He then turned back to the ladies and bowed deeply once more.
Abruptly there was a cough and a blur and eight of the cakes vanished. As did the little man. Four cakes remained plus a few small crumbs, rocking slightly as if in a breeze.
Mrs. Heath stepped forward. "Only eight? I would have..." abruptly two more cakes disappeared, "Well, they are getting lazy in their old age. Wonder where the other two have got to?" Mrs. Heath looked at Lydia, her eyes wide, her skin pale, and made a decision. "We don't need to wait for the last two. Mavis, I think it's time for the next bottle of sherry."
Lydia awoke the next morning with a very fuzzy head. Strange dreams of little people and thoughts of twin sets chased themselves through cotton wool as she lay in bed, daylight streaming through the curtains she had failed to close. The sunlight was warm, the house quiet and her potential headache threatening to explode but currently keeping a low profile. Slowly she lifted herself out of bed and pulled on her dressing gown. She yawned wide, stepped into her slippers and shuffled downstairs to the kitchen. It was only with the kettle burbling away and the milk out of the fridge that Lydia spotted the plate in the middle of the table, clean of all crumbs and with four burned down candles around it. Lydia leaned over, squinting and made out a small footprint in one of the puddles of wax. Just beside the plate was a leaflet. Lydia picked it up.
"Saltdene Women's Institute. Every second Thursday in the Village Hall. Seven O'Clock prompt. Two pounds entry, tea supplied."
Lydia yawned again, her headache starting to build as her memory rebuilt itself. She turned the paper over.
"Weigh out the eggs
Measure out that weight in butter, self-raising flour and sugar (caster sugar best but not essential)
Beat sugar and butter together until light and fluffy. It will lighten in colour as it becomes ready.
Beat in the eggs, one at a time.
Stir in sifted flour.
Put into fairy cake cases and cook for about 10-15 minutes at 180C
4 eggs is 12 fairies