The Best of Times Short Story Competition

August 2009 Results


Copyright © Ron Jones 2009

For as long as anyone could remember the Parish Council of St Mark's had met on the third Thursday of each month at 7:00 p.m. sharp. The fighting rarely began until ten minutes later; that being the interval required for the Chairman to welcome those attending and for the Secretary to read the minutes of the previous meeting.

The responsibility for the acrimony that followed could be laid fairly at the genteel feet of the Misses Peckham. What Agatha proposed Gwendolyn objected to and what Gwendolyn supported was fiercely gainsaid by her sister. Outside the meeting they had not spoken to each other for over forty years and had no contact whatsoever, except at Christmas time when each gritted her teeth and sent the other a card. Neither was prepared to wear the opprobrium of seeming uncharitable, and, being religious, both were fearful of one day having to explain their behaviour to their parents, or even a higher authority. Not surprisingly the cards always depicted similar scenes; wintry ones.

The original reason for the schism had died two years earlier after a long and happy life, married to neither. In their more tender years, each girl had believed that he would be the spouse of one and brother-in-law to the other but, as each saw herself in the connubial role, both were ultimately disappointed when he married a girl who, they both agreed, was plain. Each considered her failure to reach the altar was due to the machinations of her sibling, and, as if to emphasise in perpetuity the wrong they had suffered, each had remained resolutely single.

On the subsequent death of their widowed mother, the estate, which was respectably large, had been divided equally between the two with the condition that, on the death of one of the sisters her share should pass to the other.

Thus, what had once been a conflict of the heart became, in later years, a contest for survival. Each was determined to succeed. Colds, sniffles and other ailments that were said to be going about were not tolerated and serious illnesses were quite out of the question. However, as if in unison, each ultimately came to realise that the question of who would survive whom could be decided by the merest chance and almost simultaneously both decided that chance needed some assistance.

Being the elder of the two it was only proper that Agatha should take the first step. She had noticed that Gwendolyn was in the habit of doing her weekly shopping before the Parish Council meeting and was invariably accompanied to the church hall by a small, open topped trolley. It took only the blink of an eye, while Gwendolyn was chastising the curate behind the tea urn, for Agatha to exchange the small jar of instant coffee in the trolley for an identical one to which she had earlier added a generous quantity of a highly recommended weedkiller.

The unexpected demise of the Reverend Edwin Throstle came as an awful shock to all the members of his congregation. Apparently he had spent the previous afternoon engaged in his pastoral duties and had called on Miss Gwendolyn Peckham who had kindly made him a cup of coffee. She herself drank only water as she had forsworn both coffee and tea for Lent. Given the age of the deceased and his abstemious habits no post-mortem was thought necessary as the doctor had only recently treated the unfortunate cleric for a grumbling appendix and he had no doubt that the cause of death could not have been anything other than acute peritonitis.

Agatha was saddened by the loss of the Vicar and the fact that she had missed her target; she must try to do better next time. Gwendolyn was pleased that she and not her sister had been one of the last to spend time with dear Edwin and quick to realise that her own mortality might prove just as ephemeral. If she was going to deal with Agatha she had better act swiftly.

Fergus McManus was everything electrical. His large store in the arcade was the source of nearly all the fridges, TVs, washing machines and light fittings in the district and most of the electrical repairs undertaken were performed in his workshop. For a short time, in her youth, Gwendolyn had worked there as a shop assistant when the business was owned by Fergus’ father and had thus gained a limited understanding of electricity, and how dangerous it could be.

She happened to be in the store admiring a large plasma television set, whilst simultaneously deploring the quality of the program being broadcast, when she was approached by an assistant who informed her that her iron had been repaired and was ready for collection. Initially Gwendolyn was somewhat surprised but quickly realised that she had been mistaken for her sister and immediately saw the opportunity the error presented. Graciously she accepted the repaired item and left the store, beaming.

All it took was a simple rearrangement of the green and red wires, and in no time at all the iron was back in its box and into the Post Office for delivery to its rightful owner.

Mrs Bickerstaff, mother of four and organist at St Mark's had been ‘doing’ for Miss Agatha for nearly seven years. Normally she came once a week for a couple of hours; enough time to vacuum and dust and to give the bathroom a going over. Occasionally, very occasionally, she might do a bit of ironing if she had the time. On this occasion, unfortunately, she had the time, but not for long.

As can be imagined, the loss of both its Rector and its organist within forty eight hours had a distinctly sobering effect on the parish council and some began to speak of malevolent forces at work. For a while the losses even softened the comments of the Misses Peckham, but not to each other.

Agatha had heard that defective or under-inflated tyres could be fatal and when she found Gwendolyn's ancient Datsun parked outside the local library she knew fate was on her side. All it needed was for her to stand casually alongside the car, as if deep in thought, whilst pressing on the valve with the tip of her elegant but functional umbrella. Alas, as it was not an act with which she was totally familiar she misjudged the pressure required and was somewhat annoyed to find, when she looked, that the tyre was not merely under-inflated, it was very obvious flat and, with some irritability she stalked away from the injured vehicle.

Gwendolyn was more than irritated to find herself immobilised; a fact she made clear to the perspiring elderly librarian who stood alongside, wilting under the weight of her selection of more than a dozen books. Despite his protestations that he was in no way mechanically oriented, the unfortunate man soon find himself in shirt sleeves struggling to extricate the spare wheel from under the mound of car rugs, pot plants and shopping baskets that inhabited the boot. The wheel nuts, having been put in place by a muscular young man assisted by an air-driven power tool, were more than a match for Gwendolyn's reluctant champion and, after straining until his eyes bulged and the veins in his neck stood out like cables, he suddenly groaned, rolled over onto his back and lay disturbingly still.

As the deceased also served as a churchwarden the funeral was particularly well attended with the Misses Peckham, stern-faced and solemnly dressed, directly opposite each other across the grave; like bookends. Agatha was furious, Gwendolyn was suspicious, and so was Detective Sergeant Crowther of the local CID. Three sudden deaths within such a short period of time and all having the Misses Peckham at the epicentre could not be coincidental. The unexpected demise of Frederick Trimble the following day served only to heighten his suspicions.

Reluctant though she was to admit it, Gwendolyn was somewhat shaken by the demise of the Vicar; the other two deaths she dismissed as accidents that could happen to anyone, her involvement conveniently forgotten. She decided to face her sister and demand to know whether or not Agatha was an agent in his abrupt departure. With that aim in mind she set off to pay the first visit on her sister for over four decades. She pushed open the wrought iron gate and walked up the short drive, past the builder's lorry parked by the fir tree and up to a large front door. Several pots containing geraniums flanked the portal and she noted, with some satisfaction, that they were sadly in need of attention.

Her pull on the bell elicited no response so she walked down the side of the house reasoning that her sister might be at the rear, possibly in conversation with the builder. Again she could not help noting that the pathway was uneven and overgrown and was not in the least surprised to find that the rear garden showed similar signs of neglect. Nowhere was her sister to be found so she decided to leave and possibly return later.

Out of curiosity she decided to complete her circumnavigation of the building by walking up the other side but, as she rounded the corner she collided heavily with a ladder left leaning against the wall. Straightening her hat, she seized the ladder firmly and laid it alongside the path, where it could cause no further harm, before striding down the drive and out through the gate.

Mr Trimble, master builder and sexton of St Marks descended carefully from the ridge of Miss Agatha's roof bearing the broken tiles he had replaced and, as is usual in such an operation, he did so backwards. On safely reaching the edge of the roof he felt confidently for the uppermost rung of his ladder and was later found lying somewhat deceased amongst the azaleas.

If the loss of the Vicar and the organist had had a disturbing effect on the Parish Council, the subsequent demise of the churchwarden and the sexton rendered them almost catatonic. The handful of surviving members immediately resigned leaving only the Misses Peckham as the fractious joint custodians of the church and its property and, as neither believed the other was to be trusted each sought to take sole possession of the more valuable items of church regalia. After forty years spent sniping from safe distances the two now faced each other in what almost became hand to hand combat. Neither would yield so they reluctantly divided the items between them and parted, bearing crucifixes and the physical accoutrements of tolerance and forgiveness, with as much animosity as ever.

Ironically this single act of compromise gave DS. Crowther his opportunity. Despite strenuous attempts he had failed to clearly connect either of the sisters with the recent deaths, but the misappropriation of church property was at least something he could prove.

They were both duly charged and the law then proceeded to grind through its predicable gyrations and, as is often the case, found them guilty of a wrong they did not commit. It was only in his final words, when he was seeking to be compassionate, that the Judge unwittingly gave justice its due.

"However, since neither of you has any prior conviction, and, more particularly, because you are sisters and advanced in years, I rule that throughout your incarceration of six months you be allowed to share the same cell. Take them down."