January 20, 2011

The return of the non native

Filed under: A long way from home,Back story,misc,Village life — Duchess @ 12:57 pm

Last week I spent the evening at a dinner party in the village where I used to live. When I first saw it almost 28 years ago one Saturday afternoon in early April, I thought it must be the prettiest village in England. My husband and I, with toddler and infant in tow, were house hunting.

We knocked on a door with a For Sale sign outside.

A middle aged woman answered and hesitated a moment when we asked to look around. Hearing the television in the background, we offered to come back another time. Worse than arriving with no appointment, we had forgotten it was Grand National Saturday.

Never mind! My father always said it was a cruel race, the woman declared, opening the door wide enough for us to come in. Turn off the tele! she shouted. The noise stopped suddenly, young people scattered, and we were led into the house.

My main impression of Hedges was of a home full of laundry. Our guide heaved baskets from every surface as we were led from room to room. She apologised as she went.

I’ve got seven children, she announced, tossing away another basket of clothes so that we could inspect the cooker. Never mind! Sorry!

Bill wanted a son, she explained. She shifted another load of laundry. Sorry! But we kept having daughters, one after another. Five girls. Never mind! Then, when Daniel came, we thought we’d have one more try, to see if Daniel could have a brother.

And as she moved one last basket, she introduced us to her youngest daughter. Sorry!

I suspect I bought Hedges mainly because of the laundry and the seven children. It did not seem possible that their house could be insufficient for my needs.

My dinner companions last week were some of my first friends in the village. We reminisced a bit, traded stories about the disgraced headmaster of the village school, the disgraced landlord of the village pub, the disgraced vicar of the parish church – amongst us we could vouch for the downfall of almost every British institution.

And then, though three quarters of my audience long knew the story, for the benefit of the relative newcomers I was urged to tell again about how the village shop and post office was stormed by armed robbers, such a thing never having been heard of before or since.

It happened only a fortnight after I moved into Hedges, and the very next morning I was described in the Oxford Times as a “sharp-eyed Buckland villager”. I thought it sounded a lot like being called an Alert Peasant.

The headline was, Have-a-Go Hero Foils Armed Robbers. The sharp-eyed villager was, of course, a mere bit player; the hero who had a go was my neighbour, the shopkeeper.

My story was this:

Earlier in the century Hedges had been a draper’s shop; behind it was the bake house, next door on one side was the brewery and on the other side Summerside Stores, which sold general provisions, fresh bread and local milk, but got most of its revenue – and held most of its ready cash – from serving as the village post office. Like Hedges, the other shops were now private homes, and by the time I arrived, Summerside Stores was all that was left of the commercial centre.

My kitchen window looked straight at the shop door. I watched as a car pulled up in front and several young men got out. I idly noticed that they didn’t really look like village people (from my 14 days’ experience) and when they emerged in more than an ordinary hurry, jumped into their car, and drove away, I memorised their number plate.

A moment later my neighbour, the shopkeeper, appeared at his door with blood dripping from his forehead. Instead of handing over the cash, he fought the robbers for their gun (only an air gun – this is a Cotswold village, not NYC) and because it was frankly more useful as a blunt instrument, they hit him over the head with it and ran away.

My neighbour followed them to the door, turned the key in the lock, and had the presence of mind to switch the Open sign to Closed.

I ran out of my house and pounded on the shop window. From inside he indicated with urgent gestures that he was busy, they were closed, and I should go away. In return I shouted and gestured that I had the baddies’ number plate. Eventually, still dripping blood, he opened the door and let me in.

My dinner party host interrupted to remind me that his wife had arrived only a few minutes later.

Please might I have a pint of milk? She asked formally. Brits are always formal in the face of obvious mayhem.

No! We’re shut! snarled the bloody shopkeeper.

Now, Peter, his wife demurred, We can’t stay shut forever, can we?

The dinner party host roared with laughter. He didn’t want me to forget his favourite part of the story. She sold the pint! She sold the pint! He laughed again and then looked to me to continue.

The next day, I said, the police came and took my evidence. They were obviously sceptical of both my methods and motives, and repeatedly questioned me, asking very carefully, Did you write down the number? Evidence not on paper, it seemed, was barely evidence at all; nevertheless, the car, abandoned in the next village, was confirmed to be the one used in the raid.

What puzzled the police almost as much as my extraordinary ability to recall 3 letters and 4 digits was why I had memorised them at all. I admitted that I hadn’t seen anything except three men going into the shop and then going out again, quickly.

Finally I said, I’m an American. I am a very irritable and suspicious person. I memorize number plates all the time. The police wrote that down solemnly, showed me their notes, and asked me to sign them.

Their inquiries ground on. I don’t think anyone was ever arrested or charged. The car turned out to be stolen.

Some months later, my neighbours attended the annual ceremony in London for Postmasters and Mistresses who had been robbed during the year. They proudly showed off their medals and certificates of commendation.

As for me, I settled into village life and was never again called on to exercise my sharp villager eyes

The following year a man knocked at my door, showed me an ID, and intimated that he understood that I had done the Royal Mail a service some time ago and therefore the Royal Mail would like to show its appreciation. He apologised that it had taken so long, but as he thought I could appreciate, the Royal Mail were quite busy delivering post. Would it be convenient if he returned the following Wednesday afternoon?

At the appointed hour a large Rover car arrived to pick me up. There was a sheet of blue paper towel in the wheel well on the passenger’s side – the sort of thing you find on doctors’ examination tables – so that my shoes never had to touch any bit of floor that other shoes had touched.

The man drove me in silence to Swindon, where I received a private tour of the local sorting office, and then was offered tea, two bourbon cream biscuits, and a cheque for £30.

British readers will easily imagine the elegant pretensions of a chauffeur driven Rover car in the early 80s, and they will smile ironically at its Swindon destination (because everyone always does smile in just that way when they think of Swindon). They will also, of course, be quite clear that bourbon cream biscuits contain neither bourbon nor cream.

I always meant to buy a letter opener with the money, but I haven’t yet got around to it.


  1. Class is giving you a reward of 30 Pounds – to say nothing of the bourbon cream biscuits – when the bad guys were never caught.

    England swing like a pendulum, do…

    Comment by Jan — January 20, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

  2. That is a good story! I guess the explanation that you are an American was sufficient (no telling what else they thought about Americans).

    Comment by Marion — January 20, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

  3. Never a dull moment in the life of the Duchess.

    Comment by Janie — January 20, 2011 @ 7:21 pm

  4. Ah, I said, let’s see if my comment was on the button or consequentially fulsome. I already knew the answer. In between times I had discovered the understated Profile click-on and some earlier speculation had been confirmed. As predicted I was the platitude from outer (not “out of” – how did I let that one slip by?) space and that’ll be an end to style analysis.

    My eye caught “a cruel race”. The Brits? Amateur perhaps, irreligious certainly, under-educated most of the time. But cruel? Well, they seem equivocal about fox hunting. Ah, it’s not the British race but the Grand National. Time to pass on and allow myself to be manipulated by those ever-shifting piles of laundry. Nothing messier than laundry so you’d seen the interior of the house at its worst (recommended house-buying practice) and you were right to buy.

    Thus the story unfolded and I considered the literary gift of bourbon biscuits. Except that they had to be remembered, seen for what they were, dropped into the exact place and then (to use an Americanism that never crossed the Atlantic) reprised.

    A story to dine out on but by now my mind was on Hedges. A munificent gift from that same shifty, under-achieving island race. What ambiguity! Rural yes, metaphorical Y-E-E-S-S! A self-labelled hidey-hole from which to observe the Brits: avoiding committing themselves esp. by making evasive statements. Je plaisante, of course.

    Comment by Barrett Bonden — January 21, 2011 @ 3:48 am

  5. Thank you for calling me over, you did right, I enjoyed this story. You write so well, it’s always a pleasure.

    You realise that the bit of blue paper was not in place to keep your shoes clean but to keep the car unsullied by your shoes, don’t you?

    As for turning right, hell will freeze over before I do that. I just felt like installing a writer’s template. Besides, this way Blogger lets me post bigger photos. I may not be right-wing, but I’m a proper show-off.

    Comment by friko — January 21, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

  6. TWO Bourbon biscuits. You got two bourbon biscuits? That was reward indeed!

    Comment by herhimnbryn — January 23, 2011 @ 4:59 pm

  7. After I read one of your stories, I think I have lived the dullest life possible. And in the Middlewestern U.S., where on Friday nights, people say, “Let’s go downtown and watch the haircuts.” (Old joke…sorry)

    Comment by M.E. — January 25, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

  8. I’ve never even heard of bourbon biscuits, but I certainly think you deserved them!

    Comment by Twenty Four At Heart — January 29, 2011 @ 7:06 pm

  9. I’m a volunteer with our local police department (California). One of the things we did in police academy training was to take a memory course in memorizing license plate numbers. I didn’t think of it as an “American” thing. :)

    Thanks for visiting the Poodles and dogs and me.

    Comment by jan — February 1, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

  10. Priceless. And even more hilarious from a stateside viewpoint than the likes of I could have made it, not least as you have that independence of eye.

    It would be nice to put the odd photo up though, even if it’s just an old one of the village or house you used to live in.

    Comment by The Poet Laura-eate — February 3, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

  11. “It would be nice to put the odd photo up though, even if it’s just an old one of the village or house you used to live in”… or indeed of bourbon biscuits, for those who haven’t had the pleasure.

    What an entirely wonderful story, wonderfully told.

    Going back is hard, I think, when your life has moved on to something quite different. But reunions with old friends and neighbours can be such a nice thing.

    Comment by Jean — February 4, 2011 @ 3:54 am

  12. Good lord, of course, you memorized the license plate. Why else would you have spent your childhood reading Nancy Drew mysteries? Oh, that’s right. You probably didn’t, did you? That was me. I’m still memorizing, still waiting for my big break.

    Comment by Ruth Pennebaker — February 8, 2011 @ 1:40 pm

  13. Great story, wonderfully told with a reward of the bikkies to boot. I loved me those bourbon creams there were never enough in the biscuit tins of creams and the packs were also too light! I trust they were fresh?

    Comment by wisewebwoman — February 18, 2011 @ 10:21 am

  14. Now that I have found your blog and have found it to be interesting and amusingI would like to read your novel! So far I have not seen if, or where, you have divulged your name, or its name.

    I live in Northern California, and though bourbon biscuits may be available at Cost Plus World Market, or a similar store near me, I decided to look them up on the internet. Alas, the google hits led me to several recipes posted by women from India! Here is the one I’m going to try making-

    Comment by Martha — December 29, 2011 @ 12:02 am

  15. I was right. You are definitely better than the novel on my bedside table, and I’m glad for another reason that I’ve gone back in your archives as I was reminded that Anne is your mother.
    Wonderful storytelling Your ex”s loss is our gain.

    Comment by Deborah — February 22, 2012 @ 5:53 am

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