On Petty Common, it’s six o’clock in the morning on the second Saturday in July, 2016. Alexander Baldock, former investment banker and Oxford rugby blue, wearing the business clothes he’d put on four days ago, and with a hangover as filthy, peers at the dried grass roof above him. With walls made of hacked-down branches, this must have been built by an ex-serviceman sleeping rough, he reckons, or maybe by some enterprising kids as a den.
A few miles away in the village of Monkey Mead, benign Boltonian Richard Shackleton, his wife, the savvy and spirited Helen, and fourteen year old daughter Amy were eating breakfast. They’d already fed their menagerie, including their ancient Border Collie Trotter. It was the day of the St John’s Church Summer Fete in Petty Green, a few miles away across the common, where Richard was the lay reader. His morning occupation was setting out tables for picnic lunches and putting up stalls. His main helper was to be his twenty-one year old son James, yet to surface from the depths of his bed, a history student, whose studies had not entirely prepared him for the morning’s endeavours. The equipment to be erected was mainly from pre-history. James had been selected by Richard on the principle that one pressed man was worth ten volunteers, particularly as otherwise the volunteers would have come from the congregation. Helen had a morning’s surgery at her veterinary practice. With no-one left at home, she was taking Amy with her.
Richard had nominated Helen and her veterinary nurse Lucia as judges for the dog show, the conclusion of the Fete. When Richard had mentioned the show to Brian Atkins (the vicar of the Monkey Mead church to which St John’s was a satellite), Brian had said with a shudder that he tried it once. He’d said: “Never again. The dogs were fine, the humans just horrendous.”
Petty Green had been buzzing for days with the news about Alex Baldock. He’d disappeared since losing his job at National Bank earlier in the week. His vivacious wife Victoria and pretty little daughter Laura were frantically hoping for news. Richard, an ex- banker himself, knew Alexander from then and, although the family occasionally went to church, still thought him a chancer. Bertie Baldock was a large shaggy animal of mixed heritage, whose best hope if he came was for Scruffiest Dog.
Amy brushed Trotter lovingly to show that scruffiest dog wasn’t his category before she and Helen left for the surgery. Trotter pulled Richard across the Common for his morning walk, through bushes of burs and bobbles, undoing Amy’s good work. They walked across the path between Monkey and Petty Commons.
Alex leaves his lair, not sure what to do. Should he go home? He can’t face that. He’s attracted to the railway bridge. There’s a train coming. He puts his hands on to the top of the wall, about to ease himself upwards when he hears a voice shouting, “Trotter, this way lad.” Alex hides behind bushes.
Trotter and Richard returned home from their botanical field trip about an hour later. The monster from the deep, James, emerged to tuck into a doughnut in preparedness for the challenges ahead. He’d also been volunteered as keeper for the beat the goalie competition. Richard and James drove over to Petty Green with goalposts hanging out of the boot.
The weather was set fair. They put up the old wooden trestle tables as well as one or two more modern plastic ones. The latter proved the more difficult, with James jamming his fingers and Richard banging his knee. The splinter count from the wooden tables exceeded these minor mishaps. All the stalls were in place by the time parishioners started arriving with cakes, jams, bric-a brac and assorted tat. Older women with arthritis and failing eyesight brought knitwear for sale.
The big problem in putting up the bunting was that help was now at hand in the form of helpful parishioners, literally pulling in different directions. Few were capable of climbing the stairs at home, let alone a ladder. But miracles can happen, and twenty minutes later the adornment no fete can be without was fluttering in the gentle breeze. The final task was to erect the enclosure for the dog show. Again James was in the wars, hammering his thumb as he banged in the last stake.
Alex continues to walk down the path, and sees a rope dangling from a branch with what looks invitingly like a noose on the end. Bigger children use it as an improvised swing.
Folk from all around turned up for the Fete. Helen, Amy and Trotter came with a big picnic. Dogs were everywhere. Lunch went rather well, with little waste of food after the canine clearance service kicked in. In the afternoon, the stalls were well patronised. James’s sore thumb meant that most boys managed to score a penalty past him and win a lollipop.
Half an hour before the dog show was due to start, Victoria, Laura and Bertie snook in. Even the dog looked like he had a blotchy face from crying. Victoria had been in two minds whether to come or not. As senior churchman present, it was Richard’s job to take Victoria to one side. They went into the church porch. “I think he’s done something stupid,” she sobbed. “He’s not used to failure.”
Big strapping guy that Alex was, she clearly feared suicide. Richard tried to console her, although he was concerned too. He’d made a call to an old colleague in the week and had found out that Alexander had been sacked on the spot for a bad compliance breach. His career in the City was over.
Alex is too heavy for the rope. He crashes to the ground as it breaks. In relief, he at last decides to go home to face the music. He decides to go via the quiet of the church to plan what to say to Victoria, having forgotten there’s a fete on. And here is the place where hopes and fears turn into reality and become history.
A dishevelled Alex walked into the porch. He looked like he’d been on a bender to end all benders and then had walked through a hedge backwards. He now had to face the music without any plan. He simpered to Victoria, “I didn’t know how to tell you.”
Victoria lost it. She punched and slapped him about the head several times, shouting, “You stupid pillock, I thought you were dead,” before throwing her arms round his neck and kissing him. “The stupid job doesn’t matter,” she whispered. “You do.”
Outside, the great oaf Bertie broke free from Laura and ran into the porch barking wildly. He gave Alex a much needed wash. Laura screamed with joy as she chased after him and saw her father.
Richard tried to leave but Alex made him stop, saying: “You’ll know already that that I’ll never get another job. I bet they’re all gloating at National. I’ve wrecked every damned thing.”
Richard knew Alex to be right about the reaction at the bank. His contact at National who had given him the lowdown had not been sympathetic. Then he looked at Victoria, Laura and Bertie standing by their man.
“You’ve wrecked nothing,” he said. “Victoria’s right, the stupid job doesn’t matter one bit. Look at what these three think of you. You’ve done the important things right. So get yourself a job that means something.”
“Who’ll have me now?” Alexander asked.
Richard thought quickly. “You did Maths, didn’t you? The world’s crying out for Maths teachers, especially ones who can do Games as well, even if it is rotten rugby.” Richard was a football man. “Come on, Bertie’s looking forward to the dog show.”
They trooped to the show ring. Richard picked up the megaphone to welcome everyone and to introduce Helen and Lucia as judges. Neither Trotter nor Bertie were in the first group for Best Small Breed, the yappiest category both for dogs and owners. When the judges preferred the Yorkie to the Bichon Frise for the gold rosette, the owner loudly claimed that it was a fix because the Yorkie used Helen’s surgery and his dog didn’t. This wasn’t a lone voice.
In the second category, Best Large Breed, as the dogs paraded Helen, combative as ever, asked if anyone wanted to bribe her. Amy was accompanying Trotter and offered Helen a dog biscuit. She’d inherited Richard’s peacemaking skills. A beautiful Vizsla won the prize, not one of Helen’s clients. The judges didn’t give Bertie anything in the Crossbreed group, as they had other plans for him.
Slowly they worked through the categories. The last three were Scruffiest Dog, Golden Oldie and Best in Show. Laura insisted that her father accompany her around the ring. Helen announced that not only had Bertie won Scruffiest Dog but that Alex had won scruffiest owner, and she pinned a rosette to his lapel. The humiliation was complete. That was when he decided that he would become a Maths teacher. He grinned sheepishly as Victoria stroked their triumphant mutt, Laura dancing in delight.
Helen then mellowed enough to give only silver to Trotter in the Golden Oldie, behind the pushy Bichon Frise, who was much younger. Amy understood why that was. The Vizsla uncontroversially won best in show.
The proceedings ended. Alex shook Richard’s hand warmly as the Baldocks left. The tables and stalls were taken down The bunting was left up to brighten the rest of the summer.