By Charlie Britten.
“I’m not sleeping well. In fact, I don’t think anybody in Little Wobblemarsh has had a decent night’s sleep since he arrived,” said Sylvia, whose custom was to take herself up to bed at ten-thirty prompt with a hot water bottle and a good book. Born Miss Sylvia Singleton sixty years ago, she had come to accept that she would never be Mrs Anything Else.
“The sounds of the countryside, we’re used to,” she went on. “Cockerels, sheep, cows, even combine harvesters driving up and down all night with their headlights on, but not a peacock screeching at four o’clock in the morning.”
“Peacocks are not native to Essex,” said Dorothy, who considered herself an expert on feathered friends since she’d joined the Wildlife Trust.
Village residents agreed that somebody ought to say something, but nobody liked to, bearing in mind who the big bird belonged to. In spite of everything, he was a decent old stick, their MP.
“The postman says it’s blue all over and absolutely huge.” Dorothy held out her hands. “As wide as his van.”
“Size and colour are not the issues,” said Sylvia. “This is a noise nuisance and a matter for the Parish Council.”
“The Parish Council, dear. You’re the chairman, and you should speak to him.”
“I will speak to him,” said Sylvia, a few weeks later, “since nobody else is going to.”
“Yes. Me. The unfortunate person who lives next door and hears that terrible screeching the loudest.”
“Yes, but you can’t just knock on our MP’s door and tell him to get rid of his peacock.”
“I have an idea.”
“It wouldn’t work.” As Sylvia explained her idea in detail, her friend frowned. “We’ve never done fortune-telling at the fete before.” The Parish Council Chairman, whose role included organising this annual village event, picked up the television remote. “You couldn’t guarantee that the Right Hon would want to have his fortune told.”
“You’re forgetting the Conservative garden party last summer,” Sylvia replied quickly before the TV was switched on. “He had his tea leaves read by Mina the Mystic three times. You and I were on refreshments, and we had to keep brewing up for him.”
“Huh. Mina’s dress left nothing to the imagination. Men, they’re all the same.”
As usual the fete took place on the grounds of the MP’s house. Sylvia arrived wearing a purple and yellow tie-dyed skirt, looped earrings and lots of scarves. “I got these from the charity shop.”
“I can see that,” said Dorothy, raising her eyebrows.
“Now, where’s my tent?” Already her outfit was making her hot.
“Over there. Next to brick-a-brac.”
Sylvia cast her eye around. Ancient trestle tables were being set up all over the Right Hon’s garden, their rickety legs squeaking in protest as if they knew the damage they were about to do the immaculate lawn. She spotted the brick-a-brac stall, already loaded with its usual stock of crockery and ornaments from the 1970s, many of which reappeared year after year – then she saw what was next to it. “No, Dorothy, no. Not that thing.”
“I think it’s very kind of the Hendersons to lend it to us. Especially as they’re going camping in Norfolk with their grandchildren tomorrow.”
“How am I going to be a mysterious clairvoyant from inside that candy bar?”
However, soon Sylvia had a long queue of people waiting outside her custard yellow and baby pink stripy canvas, all eager to cross her palm with their one pound pieces. It would all go towards the upkeep of Little Wobblemarsh Village Hall. “I can see your daughter in a gown and hood,” she told several punters. “You’re standing on the deck of a big ship – could it be a cruise liner?” Sylvia, who devoured romantic novels every evening, had no trouble making up the sorts of fortunes people would like to hear.
She’d been sitting there for two hours when she saw what she wanted to see: two manicured fingers and a distinctive signet ring around the entry flap. “Just going to have my fortune told, dear,” boomed a voice which would carry across the House of Commons.
Sylvia held her breath until she almost burst.
“Load of nonsense,” said Mrs Right Hon. “I want to look at brick-a-brac.”
“Very well, dear.”
“No, no,” moaned Sylvia. “You’ve got to get him in here,” she said later when her friend brought in the free cup of tea and cake to which all stall-holders were entitled.
Dorothy arched her brow. “This was never going to work.”
“At least I’m trying.”
Minutes afterwards, the signet ring reappeared. The Right Hon strutted in, lifting his feet in slow arched steps like a peacock himself and placing two digits to his mouth. He stared at her as he sat down. “You’re not Mina the Mystic?”
He leaned forward to peer at the small portion of her face not submerged in scarves. “Mrs Singleton, isn’t it?”
“If you want me to tell your fortune, it’s one pound.”
“Of course.” His money clinked on the saucer.
Sylvia had everything prepared. She told him he was going on a long journey to a faraway place, taking with him something blue.
He frowned, ridges forming on his forehead like the speed bumps on the road outside, for which the Parish Council had campaigned for over ten years. “You mean I should leave the Conservative Party?” He shook his head. “Couldn’t do that, dear lady. The PM wouldn’t like it.”
Sylvia, who’d anticipated this, pointed again to her crystal ball, which she had purchased last weekend, ‘reduced for quick sale’ from BHS Lighting. “This is in your domestic hemisphere. Something blue at home.”
“Nope. Can’t think of anything. My wife likes everything pink.”
“Or even in the garden?”
For a minute, he was silent. “Aha.” He bounded up, knocking his legs against Sylvia’s table. “Hydrangeas. Never liked them. I’m going to pull them up and throw them on the compost heap…. at the bottom of the garden. Faraway place. Ha ha.”
Sylvia’s shoulders sagged as she watched him disappear through the tent flap. At least she’d tried.
Over the next hour, interest in the fortune-teller dwindled to nothing, so, while the Right Hon was calling the raffle, Sylvia browsed the book stall, even though she herself had donated much of its stock. Chancing upon a battered copy of a paperback entitled ‘Keeping Peacocks’, she bought it for thirty pence. She was sitting in her stripy tent perusing its brittle brown pages when she became aware of a shadow across the entrance.
“Oh,” gasped Sylvia.
He halted, one scaled leg raised and claws flexed, as if he were doing Yoga. Then he proceeded inside, his blue tail feathers trailing behind him like a ball gown with a lace train.
“Oh. You are so beautiful.” She had never seen the peacock close-to before.
He clucked, a throaty, resonant cluck which seemed to say that there could be more, that he was turning the volume down for now, but not forever. With his erect golden plume at a rakish angle, he fixed his eyes upon her.
Lowering her gaze, Sylvia closed her book. It would be rude to read ‘Keeping Peacocks’ in front of him.
Yet the noise of the pages closing seemed to unsettle him. All of a sudden, he drew himself to his full height and, with a sound like rustling silk, unfurled his full glory: orange jewels with black centres on a blue mantilla.
She drew in her breath to speak, but anything she might’ve said would’ve been drowned by his ear-splitting scream, not once, not twice, but over and over again. “No,” she cried, slapping her palms over her ears. “No. Please don’t.”
He quietened. Eventually.
“I think I know what your trouble is,” she said holding up the book. “Believe me, there are times when I’ve wanted to screech too. But not at four in the morning.” She fixed her gaze upon him. “That. Must. Stop.”
He tilted his head to one side.
“I’ll do what I can. Your problem may be easier to resolve than mine, my beautiful bachelor boy. They say you can find anything on the internet.”
Several days later a small van with ‘Peabody & Son’ stenciled on the side drew up in front of the Right Hon’s house. Next door, Sylvia watched from her landing window, her fingers very much crossed.
The man himself answered the door. He bent down to look at the big wooden crate which had been deposited on his step and peered through the grille. Sylvia was too far away to see anything properly, but she might have caught a glimpse of black and white. The Right Hon studied the delivery note, jabbing it with his finger and shaking his head at the van driver, but MPs can never resist presents. Picking up the crate, he walked purposefully around the side of his house and out of sight.
All Sylvia could do now was wait. She put away the laundry, dusted everywhere upstairs, and was cleaning the back bedroom window when she saw it at last. Pottering around the Right Hon’s garden, reaching her elegant neck down to peck at the ground, was the black and white peahen.
“Love at last, my bachelor boy,” whispered Sylvia. “I said I’d do what I could, didn’t I?”
The boy, standing upon a freshly-dug patch of earth where a blue hydrangea used to grow, watched her in silence. The perfect gentleman.
That night Little Wobblemarsh slept.
CHARLIE BRITTEN lives in eastern England with her husband and cat. She writes because she enjoys it. Her work has been published in ‘Mslexia’, ‘Circa’, ‘Every Day Fiction’, ‘The Copperfield Review’ and ‘Radgepacket’. In real life, she used to lecture in IT at a college of further education, but has recently retired in order to write more and spend more time with family. Charlie’s blog, ‘Write On’, is at http://charliebritten.wordpress.com/.