The Chocolate Box by Charlie Tyler
Updated: Sep 24, 2020
It was judgement day. Fenella Fainwright’s fingers trembled, sending ripples across her lapsang souchong. Deep breaths. There was nothing to worry about. She'd fixed the lawn.
Fenella glanced at her alarm clock: 7.45am. By now the judges would be tucking into a Full English at the Bell and Bottle. She turned to face the mirror on her dressing table and made an ‘o’ with her mouth then smiled, casting her eyes down and fluttering her lashes. Her reflection humble yet, at the same time, confident. She picked up her brooch and the Glenpeck crimson parallelogram nestled in her palm, gold letters weaving across the surface: Chocolate Box Cover 2017. She kissed the enamel and pinned it to her white, floaty dress. Time to make it three years running. Fenella hooked the velvet drapes behind their holdbacks and stared onto The Green. Net curtains didn’t twitch in this part of Peatle Champney because nothing so vulgar existed and neither, for that matter, did litter bins, bus stops or street lamps. Dazzled by white sunshine, Fenella lowered her gaze, drinking in the beauty of her own handiwork. Magenta and cream petunias bowed their tubular heads either side of the gravel path; a striped fanfare guiding one’s eyes along a triumphal journey which ended at the low, box hedge, trimmed, of course, to perfection. The wrought iron gate glimmered; curlicues of rose-coloured metal, spiralling inwards to form a heart-shaped porthole. Fenella referred to this as her Alice moment: the window through which the public could take a peek at paradise and marvel at her trailing lobelia and infinity water feature (new this year).
A little piece of chocolate box magic.
A drunken bumblebee knocked into a mullioned pane and snapped Fenella out of her daydream. Time to get out there and wash down the paintwork. Who knew how many sticky fingers had clung onto the gate yesterday. Tourists. She wrinkled her nose. At least she didn’t have to worry about the lawn.
Fenella skipped downstairs, took some sausages out of the freezer and made herself a coffee before heading into the utility room to assemble her arsenal: hedge trimmers, nail scissors, jute bag for stray foliage, bucket and sponge. She peeped out of the window and smiled; silhouettes already looming at the gate.
She took a sip of espresso and, as she savoured its bitter cherry undertones, a loud woof sliced through her thoughts. She checked her watch and pursed her lips. 8.05am. Here, on The Green, barking was forbidden before 8am. The creature barked again; probably that scuttling, chalk-board duster from Smithy Cottage.
Fenalla loathed dogs. She moved to the enamel sink and turned on the hot tap, squirting a generous amount of Fairy Liquid into her bucket. She tapped her toe on the marble tiles as the water cascaded, swirling an index finger into the bubbles as though trying to dissolve the memories of the past month.
It had all started four weeks ago.
* * *
Fenella had been coming back from having a ‘little word’ with her neighbour, Mrs Hentry; a nice enough woman, good with jam, but recently her side of the hedge had become quite wayward. Fenella turned the privet corner, Mrs H in tow, when she spotted him: a fat, balding man with far too much translucent skin on display. There he stood, hands in his pockets, as a barrel-shaped dog, with a bright turquoise lead and collar, fouled her verge.
‘How dare you?’ she cried, leaping forwards and pointing the hedge clippers at his chest. The man took a step backwards and pulled a cluster of black sacks from his towelling shorts.
‘It’s alright.’ He waved the bags at her whilst his dog, having finished its business, scuffed the turf with its hind paws, catapulting specks of earth and grass into the air.
A vein throbbed at her left temple. ‘It most certainly isn’t alright.’
‘Keep your hair on,’ said the man, rolling his eyes. ‘Anyone can see I’m picking it up.’ He leant over and a wave of puckered flesh spilled out from beneath his tee-shirt.
‘I don’t care what you are doing. You shouldn’t let your filthy animal defecate on my lawn in the first place. The rope cordon is there for a reason.’
‘Well, you try telling that to Barney. He can’t really help where he goes. Besides, he’s not well, are you, old fella? On his last legs.’ The man grinned, showing tombstone front teeth and receding gums. ‘Take it as a compliment. He’s terribly fussy about where he likes to crap, aren’t you Barney?’ The man swung the, now bulging, sack in Fenella’s face and a waft of pungent excrement hit her nostrils. Fenella stared at a glistening brown mark on her lawn.
‘Wipe that up,’ she hissed pointing a paisley-gloved finger at the offending patch. Her body fizzed with rage.
The man turned away. ‘Wipe it up yourself, you sour-faced old trout.’ Barney waddled behind him, strings of dribble hanging like stalactites from his rubbery jaws.
‘People like you –’
The man turned, splayed his pudgy fingers on his hips and raised an eyebrow whilst Barney, his stumpy tail wagging, sniffed at a woodlouse.
‘People like you are no better than a dog turd and if I catch your vile creature defiling my lawn again, I’ll make mincemeat of him. Right here on this very spot.’ She snapped the blades of her hedge clippers together. ‘Mincemeat.’ The man stuck two fingers up at her as he and Barney sauntered off, bellies wobbling in tandem. Mrs Hentry, who had remained frozen throughout the whole episode, muttered something about hearing a phone ringing and beetled off up her garden path. Fenella immediately withdrew to fetch her Marigolds and a sheaf of Dettol wipes.
The next morning, as soon as she had walked out of the gate for her first litter patrol of the day, she was greeted by an enormous turd coiled upon her verge. Her stomach tightened. Barney. How to prove it, however, posed a quandary as no CCTV cameras were allowed on this side of The Green. Everything had to be Edwardian in appearance otherwise Peatle Champney forfeited its entry for Unspoilt Village of the Year. She shuddered as she recalled the 2012 debacle and Mr Winter’s rogue satellite dish.
Sure enough, for the next fortnight, Fenella’s lawn was bequeathed a daily offering and no amount of undercover espionage made a jot of difference – the excrement materialised at all times of day and night. Meanwhile, as the grass blanched beneath the toxic deposits, Glenpeck’s coveted prize slipped further from her grasp. Each day her cardboard placards of righteous indignation were exchanged by the phantom pooper for a brown parcel. She had taken Polaroids of each one, surprised at the differences in size, and took her catalogue to the police who had sniggered at her suggestion of a round-the-clock surveillance team.
With the law unwilling to help and D-day imminent, Fenella decided to turn vigilante. She had put on her oldest gardening trousers and ex-husband’s shooting cap and taken herself into the back streets of Peatle Champney. The man had to live close by; you couldn’t get a car onto the green. Eventually, she had spotted him coming out of the other pub: the one nobody who lived on The Green frequented. Although it may have been her imagination, but she was sure she'd spotted Mrs Hentry peeping out from behind the etched-glass window. Impossible. The man’s face looked a little pink and puffy round the eyes, but that’s what you got for daytime drinking. Fenella’s occasional pre-meridian imbibing didn’t count because her wine came from Harrods. Heart pounding, she followed the villain along the cobbled alleyway and past the newsagents. Then he had made a sharp left turn and walked up a crazy paving path towards a terraced house. He opened the door and there it was, all the evidence she needed; Barney’s turquoise collar and lead hanging upon a hook.
The next evening Fenella once again put on her sleuthing disguise and loitered behind the wheelie bins until the man entered the pub. When he was safely ensconced, she hurried back to her house and fetched a wheelbarrow which was overflowing with ripe, horse manure. She moved along her route in fits and starts, diving into the shadows whenever she heard approaching footsteps. When the road was clear, she sprinted up the path and tipped the dung onto his doorstep before running away as fast as she could. Someone had hollered after her, but she didn’t turn around. Dizzy with adrenalin, she returned to her beautiful, thatched cottage and poured herself a large glass of Sancerre. She’d done it; she’d taken her revenge and it felt glorious. And, just like that, with only a couple of days to spare, the brown messages stopped, and The Turf Doctor fixed the verge so that her grass was once again emerald and glossy.
* * *
Fenella hummed I Vow to Thee My Country and stepped out of the back door into her display garden, soapy water sloshing over the rim of the bucket. The hum of conversation wafted towards her on the gentle, morning breeze. Wait! They weren’t murmurs of joy. Something in the atmosphere made the hairs on her arms stand erect. She set down the vessel and hurried closer, her ears tingling. Voices were raised, even angry. She pushed her way through the gate and silence fell as bystanders turned their heads towards her and then back to the verge. Fenella followed their collective gaze and gasped. In front of her lay an animal’s corpse.
‘Mrs Fenwright?’ A young police officer in a hi-vis jacket took a step towards her.
‘What on earth is going on here?’
‘Are you Mrs Fenwright?’ the policeman asked, staring at her with watery-blue eyes.
‘Fen-it,’ she said. ‘It’s pronounced Fen-it. Care to tell me what this is doing on my grass?’ Heavens, she’d have to wash down the lawn as well as all the paintwork, get a wire brush and comb it clean. What was it? Possibly a fox. She turned back to the house. There was no time to lose. She needed black sacks and plenty of them.
‘It’s just that we’ve had a complaint,’ said the policeman. Suddenly the familiar figure of an overweight, pale, balding man staggered towards her. Fenella took a step backwards. ‘A serious complaint.’
‘That’s her,’ he said, pointing a finger. ‘That’s her. What have you done to my Barney?’ He fell to his knees, his face blotchy, like a bag of pink and white marshmallows.
‘What are you talking about, you imbecile? As if I had anything to do with this.’
The policeman leaned over the animal and tugged at a turquoise collar. ‘It does indeed say Barney,’ he added, jangling the metal tag.
Her stomach flipped. But this didn’t make any sense.
‘You said…you said you’d make mincemeat of him,’ spluttered the man. ‘I’ve got witnesses.’
Fenella’s tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth.
Mrs Hentry swallowed and bowed her head. She twisted her hands together. ‘Well…I mean… you did say.’
‘I didn’t mean it literally. It’s a figure of speech.’
Globules of snot trailed down the man’s chin as his wailing grew louder.
‘It seems you have been waging a war of physical and verbal abuse against Mr Blake here,’ continued the policeman. ‘Did you empty a wheelbarrow of horse manure onto his door-step?’
Her stomach somersaulted, but she tilted her nose upwards. They couldn’t pin that on her.
‘The thing is,’ the policeman continued, ‘we have quite clear CCTV footage of a woman of your height and build running past the newsagents with a wheelbarrow. One minute it’s full of shite, the next it’s empty.’
‘I think you had better come with us to the station. We take matters of animal cruelty very, very seriously.’
‘But…but…’ she stared at Barney’s corpse. ‘This is utter codswallop. It’s…it’s sabotage.’
‘I feel sorry for you,’ said Mr Blake, ‘but I forgive you,’ he added, stepping forwards and reaching out a sweaty palm. Fenella recoiled, putting her hands behind her back. The onlookers nudged each other and tutted. Mr Blake leaned in closer. ‘Can I let you into a little secret?’ he whispered, huffing stale coffee breath over her. ‘Barney died a couple of days ago, but he’s been unable to get out for a fortnight. I didn’t have the heart, or should I say, material to carry on, but everyone on The Green’s been so supportive.’
In the corner of her eye, she saw the unmistakable crimson jackets of the Glenpeck judges. They were marching towards her, clipboards tucked under their arms.
‘In fact,’ he continued, ‘there was no stopping them.’
Bile crept up her throat.
‘What’s more,’ he winked, ‘they’ve all had a go. Even the ones without dogs.’