Not long after taking up my position as the local police constable for Bury-cum-Chorley, I was summoned to a hastily-convened meeting in the village hall.
Now before I go much further with my story, I should point out that this was almost twenty-five years ago when life meandered along at a decidedly slower pace than it does today. I-pods were the stuff of fiction, mobiles were the size of bricks and I was shuffling real paperwork from my in tray to my out tray at the police station, with barely a computer in sight.
You may laugh – I can hear some of you chortling now – but all these gadgets and gizmos don’t necessarily make life easier. Although I wouldn’t want to go back to those days, if I’m absolutely honest, we’ve lost something along the way … I would call it an enjoyment in the simpler pleasures of life.
Gardening is most definitely one of those pleasures. I still get excited when I think of the annual cycle of sowing seeds and watching them grow into young plants, before they swell in size to become carrots, lettuces, radishes, leeks. In Chorley, as we referred to the village amongst ourselves when there was no danger of it being confused with Chorley Bottome or Chorley Green, the growing season culminated in the annual vegetable competition. It was always hotly-contested, and for some reason it was the pumpkin category which brought out the villagers’ fighting spirit. In fact, I would go so far as to say that pumpkins brought out a very nasty streak in some people, and in the year of 1990, it was particularly bad.
Like many things, when we talking pumpkins, size is what counts. ‘And the perfect conditions?’ I hear you ask. In equal measures, sunshine and rain, the perfect pumpkin you will gain, so the old wives’ tale goes. And boy, the weather didn’t disappoint that year, delivering us a bumper crop. One day at the end of summer I peered over the wall at Chorley Manor and saw Lady Gerard had turned over half her vegetable patch to the bright orange beauties. With the evening sun glinting off their backs, if you’d told me someone had been out there polishing them, I wouldn’t have been surprised. And it wasn’t just at the manor; all over the village, the locals were indulging in their passion for pumpkins. I had to turn a blind eye to some rather excessive watering regimes during the hose pipe ban. But I couldn’t altogether blame the villagers for their exuberance, when I too had been bitten by the pumpkin-cultivating bug.
But in the main, I should stress, the art of fostering pumpkins has to be naturally done – no meddling, no injecting the lovelies with extra water. George Mortimer did that to his detriment in 1983 and was banned from entering the squash category for 5 years. But as it turned out, his little misdemeanour was nothing compared to what was to unfold in the autumn of 1990.
Where was I? Ah yes, I was called to a meeting in the village hall. If the glum faces I met on arrival weren’t enough to tell me something wrong, the fact that the urn wasn’t on the boil for a cup of tea, certainly was.
‘There’s a pumpkin saboteur on the loose, Constable,’ said Burt Finch, without any of the usual niceties.
‘He’s mutilated a whole section of my pumpkin field,’ said Lady Gerard. ‘What a sight met my eyes this morning. I can only thank my blessings that he must have been disturbed from his business, otherwise I would have nothing to show at the vegetable competition on Saturday.’
‘Let me get this straight,’ I said, ‘you think someone has had a go at your pumpkins. Are you sure it wasn’t an animal?’
‘I would love to know what kind of animal has the skill to do this,’ replied Lady Gerard moving aside to show me a table containing two of her prize pumpkins, both sporting leering, toothless grins and hollow eyes.
‘He carved faces in them?’ I asked.
‘Yes, it’s his calling card,’ continued Burt. ‘Beth and John Jury, Phil Robinson, and Greg Atherton have all had their pumpkins ruined.’ I followed Burt’s gaze to the far end of the hall and saw the full extent of the saboteur’s work. Eighteen orange faces grinned back.
It didn’t take me long to realise the connection between the villagers who had been targeted: all previous winners of the squash category in the Chorley vegetable competition. As a hopeful contender for the 1990 trophy, I was sorely tempted to rush back home and check on my own pumpkins, but duty comes first. I turned my attention to the table of jack-o’-lanterns, which now had officially become evidence; pumpkin after pumpkin leered up at me, taunting me to solve the case.
Beth Jury whimpered when I picked up what was left of her cherished vegetable: ‘Betsy was our best pumpkin for years, I watched her grow from seed; she’s the fifth generation descendent from big Bertie which won in 1985. I was sure we were in for a win again this year.’ Phil Robinson looked mournfully at what was left of his pride and joy when I questioned him about events. And Greg Atherton was quite simply apoplectic with rage: ‘when I find out who did this, they won’t dare step foot in Chorley again.’
The next day at breakfast, over my toast and tea, the headline of the Chorley Echo caught my eye: ‘pumpkin hopes squashed’. It never takes long for Jack Mane, the local reporter, to sniff out a story, I thought to myself. He had even managed to get a photo of the devastation in Lady Gerard’s garden, probably unauthorised, and a quote from Greg Atherton in his fury.
I set off on my bike to make inquiries. The first stop, my prime suspect: George Mortimer. Alright, I admit I wasn’t applying the most strategic of police thinking, but I had to start somewhere, and the fact that George had stooped so low as to inject his pumpkins with water showed that he was willing to bend the rules to win the vegetable competition. Perhaps he would even stretch to criminal activity.
‘What? Do you think I had something to do with this?’ he asked me as we stood in the front room of his little cottage. ‘I admit I’ve made some mistakes in the past and been a bit over competitive, shall we say, but I paid the price for that. Besides, I’m done with squashes; I’m much more interested in roots now. In fact, I don’t care too hoots about pumpkins.’
I found him a little too quick to express such a disinterest in pumpkins, but with no evidence to suggest he had anything to do with the crimes, I went on my way. I paid calls to all the victims that day, and drank enough tea to sink the QE2, not wishing to be disrespectful to our great Queen, of course.
To my annoyance, wherever I went, I found I was following in the footsteps of the reporter, Jack Mane. And in spite of this being an official police investigation, everyone had been happy to talk to him. Whether he’d had more success in his so-called investigations, I couldn’t say, but my inquiries hadn’t produced a single clue. It felt like a wasted day. The only thing to do was to wait for the pumpkin fiend to strike again. And in the end, we didn’t have to wait too long.
I was off duty that evening and was just coming out the Dog and Duck, after indulging in a pint of Gurglers cider, when I heard a chilling scream coming from the direction of the church. I set off at quite a pace, I can tell you, and found a distressed May Turner standing in her front garden.
‘It’s horrible,’ she screamed, ‘my largest pumpkin has been massacred.’ I followed her round the side of her cottage, into her kitchen garden and sure enough saw her pumpkin, which was the size of a small fridge and set to tip the scales at 300 pounds, lying on its side, mutilated. This wasn’t the measured face-cutting crime which had befallen the other pumpkins; there was a wildness here which I had not seen in the crimes to date – May’s pumpkin was covered in large gashes and orange flesh was spewing from its wounds. It was a messy business and the culprit would certainly have walked away with pumpkin juice stains on his hands. The pumpkin innards trailing half-way across the lawn suggested the villain had made his get-away over the hedge and into Tinker’s Wood.
I set to work inspecting May’s hedge for clues. Then something snagged on a twig caught my eye and I smiled to myself; this clue could just lead me to the saboteur, if I could only get them to admit to it.
It is possible that I may have over indulged on Agatha Christie novels, but what better way to conclude the affair, I thought, than to call a meeting at the village hall. All the residents duly turned up at the appointed time and took their seats. Beth Jury came in comforting May Turner, who still looked in shock from the events the night before. George Mortimer was there at my request. Burt Finch arrived in full gardening regalia after his day at the allotment. And of course the reporter Jack Mane couldn’t resist coming too, hoping to get a scoop.
They sat in front of me on their small wooden seats, eagerly waiting for me to share what I had learned.
‘This village has had to endure some appalling crimes this autumn,’ I began. ‘Our prize pumpkins have been desecrated. People who should even now be buffing their pumpkin skins ready for the competition on Saturday are instead mourning the loss of their produce.’ I paused for dramatic effect. ‘And someone here is the scoundrel. You thought you could get away with it, but you didn’t realise that you left some evidence behind.’
They all looked at one another nervously, trying to work out who it could possibly be. A number of eyes settled on George.
‘I didn’t do it’ he shouted.
‘No, you didn’t do it, George,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry for suspecting you – an elementary policing mistake.’
He smiled smugly at the rest of the villagers.
‘Well, tell us who did do it,’ said Lady Gerard.
‘It’s interesting that you ask, Lady Gerard. I mean one way you might have chosen to throw the scent off you would have been to massacre your own veg. In fact, that argument would work for any one of you sat here.’
‘How dare you, constable! I didn’t come here to be insulted,’ she retorted.
‘My apologies, Lady Gerard. Of course it wasn’t you.’
‘Well, hurry up and get this ridiculous meeting over and done with. We’d all like to get home,’ she replied.
‘It was May Turner’s pumpkin which produced the first piece of credible evidence, something which was dropped by the culprit. Have you got your pen poised to take this down for tomorrow’s headline, Jack?’ I said.
‘Oh right,’ he said, rustling around in the top pocket of his mac for his pen.
‘Do you need a pen?’ I said, holding out a biro emblazed with the name of the Chorley Echo on the side. ‘Is this what you’re looking for?’
‘Oh, ta,’ he said, initially coming forward, and then suddenly halting in his tracks. ‘Err, actually, do you know what? I don’t normally make notes. I’ve got this great memory for quotes.’
‘Do you? Do you have a great memory for what happened yesterday? I found this biro from the Echo nestling in the hedge in May Turner’s garden. How could it have possibly found its way there?’
‘You’re not suggesting that I had something to do with this, are you? What would I possibly have to gain? I don’t even grow pumpkins.’
‘No, but you are in the business of growing newspaper sales – by whatever means possible, it would seem.’
‘I would like to see you try and prove it. Anyone could have dropped that pen to try and deflect the blame onto me.’
‘Well, they could have done, that’s true, but you see I paid a visit to your wife today while you were busy at the Echo. She was pretty tight-lipped but she couldn’t refuse my request to use the little boy’s room. And what did I find? Strange orange flesh in the plughole of your bath and some suspicious seeds in the wastepaper bin – all concurrent with massacring a pumpkin the size of a small kitchen appliance, I would suggest!’
‘Oh alright, it was me. I had to do something to make the local news more exciting. There has to be more than school sports day, summer fetes and the endless debate on pot-holes. Come on, you have to admit, it has livened things up a bit around here.’
The villagers didn’t look at all amused and slowly made their way home, muttering under their breath. He got a fine to cover the damages and for once a rank outsider won the squash category in the vegetable competition. That year too, an unusual number of jack-o’-lanterns adorned the windows in the village. In fact, it remains a firm tradition in Chorley to carve pumpkins and place them in the window at Hallowe’en, although I must say the faces do always have a look of Jack Mane about them.
Illustrated by Laura Elliott. See more of her brilliant work at http://drawesome.co.uk