Ever since the day Elvis Linkthorpe had first entered the heavenly abode of St. Whipplemores, with his long locks a-flowing and his love beads a-jangling, the congregation had seen a substantial year to year growth in the devout, unlike virtually every other parish in Albion. Of course the hierarchy of the Church didn’t care one whit how or why the Fekenham population had all turned to the Church. All they were concerned with was the fact that each and every Sunday their church was full to the brim with the faithful. Faithful? Well, yes that part is true, very faithful, but this begs the question, ‘To which faith in particular did they belong?’ Folks flocked to St. Whipplemores with the same zeal that young people flocked to rock and roll concerts. This wasn’t simply unusual, it was downright strange, but no one, least of all the Church, minded a bit.
St. Whipplemores, having been built in 1624, was very much of the Christian persuasion, however, with the Reverend Elvis Linkthorpe in charge, the worship was a bit more eclectic. In fact, at times, it was even surreal.
Upon entering the sleepy hamlet of Fekenham, Elvis Linkthorpe had at once spotted the community’s natural ability to welcome all manner of people into its English heartland and then to assimilate their ways into the general village fabric. He had met the Afro-Caribbean family of Herman Neptune Cole, his wife, and their countless children, and had suggested, in a moment of either divine genius or unrepeatable madness, that they form a choir. They did, and accompanied by their father, who played a mean boogie-woogie version of Blake’s “Jerusalem,” went on to become the church’s resident gospel choir. The usual sound of a church organ à la Bach was replaced with the tinkling sounds of Doctor John backed by the Harlem Gospel Singers; a novelty and no mistake.
With the arrival of the Braganza-Smythe family, who, although Catholic by upbringing, were Hindu by history, Reverend Linkthorpe decided to assimilate a part of the Hindu faith into the proceedings by having a host of shaven-headed dancers who swayed and shifted and danced through the aisles to the musical accompaniment of New Orleans jazz whilst chanting, in a gospel-type way, the various names of the Hindu pantheon.:
“Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Oh Lordy, Oh yeah, Hare Krishna, Oh my soul Lord Jesus, Oh Yeah.”
This mutant, cacophonic blast of diametrically different musicality sounded like the choir of heaven to our dear reverend’s ears. To everyone else it sounded like a diseased sheep being slaughtered with a hedge trimmer. Nevertheless, the appeal to the citizens of Fekenham was immediate and overwhelming. They loved it. Somehow the merging of multiple faiths into one happy-go-lucky smudge worked. The inside of the church was dressed in garlands of richly coloured flowers that hung from the walls and window ledges and were strewn about the floor like a floral carpet. The ambience of the place was further enhanced by an Arabian incense burner fuelled by an aromatic substance that wafted its sweet, cloying fragrance over the gathered heads. It smelt suspiciously of marijuana, and if it was the demon weed, well no one commented, but everyone always left the church red-eyed and happy.
“The true spirit of God enters us all here in St. Whipplemores,” quipped the pothead priest.
“Ain’t that the truth,” thought Arthur Bentwhistle through a foggy haze.
A full church makes for a happy diocese and a contented congregation and this Sunday was no different. Elvis Linkthorpe gazed across at his gathered flock and did a quick mental (mental being an appropriate word) head count. There were all the regulars. That included Mr. and Mrs. Humshaw, Major Lillycrap, The Bentwhistles (Lupini and Arthur), the delectable Delores Dewhip (breasts like quivering lust), The Hamfists: (Madge, husband Will, and the twins, Elton and Noddy), Millie Meade was there, along with husband Bert, the Braganza-Smythes, and, a rare occasion indeed, Ernie Stalworthy the Cockney poacher. Ernie was notorious in the area as an ‘independent gamekeeper,’ a Cockney and not at all a bad egg, and quite a generous, good-natured man who, whenever he shot something on someone’s bit of land, always shared it with someone else. But of course the Church had, by its own and by its reverend’s declaration, a duty to love everybody. This included Delores Dewhip (but that is another story entirely), and even odd fellows like Ernie. Even more surprising was Major Lillycrap and Brigadier Largepiece. Not that it was particularly surprising to see the two gentlemen in church, as they were both regulars, but to see them sitting together on the same pew was quite remarkable, as they didn’t like each other. The Brigadier knew the Major of old and simply couldn’t stand him, and the Major thought that the Brigadier was a stuck up old warthog. A mutual distaste, you might say.
Behind them and a little to their left sat Verity Lambush, the local school headmistress. She was a formidable woman, notorious for the highly disciplined way she ran the school and equally notorious for her passions. Her passion was the male members of Fekenham, and rumour had it that she had loved them all during her time in the village. On this Sunday morning she sat beside her latest paramour, a newcomer, the much envied and admired Ralph Rashard, an American, who had recently moved into Fekenham and caused quite a stir with his good looks and exotic accent.
Ralph was nobody’s fool, a retired lawyer who had practised in New York. He had defended some pretty unpleasant people during his career from gangsters to murders but none had been quite so off the wall as these English yokels.
Ralph was a big man. Not as tall or broad as the Hamfist twins, Elton and Noddy, both of whom were six feet ten and built like brick privies, but at six five no push over.
His great grandfather had been born near Fekenham and it was an area to which Ralph had long thought of retiring. At fifty-seven, he was still young, or at least, he thought so, to settle down in Albion and make a life for himself. He had married nearly thirty years ago but had divorced five years later. A career and a marriage didn’t seem the best of mixes.
Upon arriving in the village, he had thought it wise to get acquainted with the locals. The first port of call had been that old English institution, the local public house. Fekenham had three; one by the river, The Old Trout, one on the way to neighbouring Birchtickle, The Duck and Dragon and the one that sat opposite the village green, the Frog and Radiator.
The fact that the English drank the beer warm was, at best a novelty. He had asked the barman what ale he would recommend and the leering old leech, Arthur Bentwhistle, who had his eyes all over the barmaid, Delores Dewhip, had suggested Widows Whisker.
Ralph had ordered the customary pint, swallowed a mouthful and didn’t quite know what to do next. With no spittoon in sight, he did what any sane American would do and spat the lot into the nearest plant pot. Widows Whisker was an acquired taste.
The pub was friendly enough. A few locals, curious as to who he was, had spoken to him and then, upon finding out he was from the US of A had teased him but not maliciously. He gave as good as he got.
A woman, of similar vintage to himself, tall, elegant and oh so typically English sat with a man, balding and too ready with his hands, drinking.
The woman too must have shared Ralph’s opinion of her gentleman friends wandering hands and very coolly stood up and poured her drink over the man’s head.
“Patently you think asking a lady out for a drink entitles you to feel free to let your hands wander. Not in my case. Goodbye.”
She rose with supreme dignity leaving the man red-faced and furious. Ralph watched as the man got up clenching his fist as the woman moved through the crowded bar. The man got up to follow her. He looked hurt and male pride once bruised turns to rage, at least in the American’s experience. Ralph too stood up blocking the man’s path.
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” said Ralph towering over the man.
The woman must have looked back for as Ralph turned to see if she had left she was looking at him. A slight smile played upon her face.
The next day Ralph had thought he should try the tea rooms. He hated tea, preferring coffee but found Molly Sharptack’s Tea Rooms to be not only quaint but a good place to eat and drink. Okay, it had the mild reserve that the Limeys love, but it was civilised and served a decent Americano.
As he sat reading the local newspaper, sipping at his coffee so she had approached him.
“Thank you, for the other night I mean, very gallant of you.”
Ralph had risen from his seat out of a courtesy breed into him by his mother.
“Hi, I’m Ralph, Ralph Ramhard.”
She smiled wickedly. “I am sure you are. You are American?”
“Yep. I hope you won’t hold that against me?”
“Not if you take me to dinner I won’t.”
“And you are?”
“Verity Lambush, Fekenham senior school’s headmistress.”
That evening they had dined at Raffino’s in Muckleford, the nearest market town. He had liked her straight away. She was terribly English, of the middle class and a bit of a snob but she was also rather sweet and tender when you got to know her and, so he suspected, just like him still searching for the right one, that special person who he had never found but always dreamed of meeting.
Outside the church the sun shone meekly, birds twittered in the trees and moss grew on the stone walls. Inside, Elvis Linkthorpe coughed a hearty welcome to his gathered flock.
“Dearly beloved,” he crooned, “we are gathered here today beneath the multi-named and many-eyed omnipotent gaze of our holy Lord . . .”
“Makes God sound like a ruddy schizophrenic spider,” thought the Brigadier.
“. . . who, although it isn’t always clear to us, knows all things and gives purpose to all things done upon this our beautiful green jewel of a planet. And even in the face of unexplained adversity and natural disaster, it is God who plans all things and makes them happen. Even when Fekenham itself is beset by the perverse nature of one of its inhabitants, as with all things, God is behind it.”
At this point, from deep and far back in the church pews, a loud, prickly voice croaked to life. It was the voice of one of Fekenham’s liveliest dames, Ethel Blowvalve.
“Well if it is God, who has stolen my knickers then tell him to give them back, ‘cos my arse is bloody freezing,” she said, through a toothy laugh that echoed around and bounced off the ancient, hallowed walls.
The congregation tittered, and far back on the final pews, Maurice Tinkercuss, Major Lillycrap and Brigadier Largepiece all squirmed on the hard wooden seats. Something wasn’t right, and guilt hovered over their heads like the finger of suspicion.
Outside the church, lurking like a bad smell, Seamus Fliphook stood. He had wanted to speak with that Lambush woman. He still had unfinished business with her. It was then he spotted a Rolls-Royce drive past.
Inside the car Rupert Snatch-Kiss, the new resident multi-billionaire was taking in the locality, getting to know its curious ways. His chauffer had just driven by the old Manor House previously occupied by the Crust family. Now, of course, the manor belonged to Snatch-Kiss and boy did he have plans for it, big plans that would shake up this grotty backwater.
Later, after the Sunday sermon and after Sunday lunch. The people of Fekenham gathered where they always did – down the local pub.
The late summer sun poured in through the aged windows of Fekenham Swarberry’s favourite haunt like treacle dripping over a spotted dick pudding, slow and soft. At the bar stood Will, Noddy, and Elton Hamfist, necking pints as if the commodity were just about to go into an abrupt and irreversible decline. Their laughter was the brass sound of workmen whose calloused hands and aching backs have fought with and toiled against the honest earth’s best endeavours to prevent them from turning and manipulating its deepest, darkest soil.
Their jokes and general conversation were at best ribald and littered with humour as dirty as their grimy fingernails. Sitting at a comfortable distance from them, but still well within earshot, were Maybeline Humshaw, Violet Springheel and Rose Buckshot, who each sat nursing a gin with a twist of lemon. Their conversation was not on such lofty topics as those pursued by their men, which revolved around, women’s thighs, cows’ udders, and how much ale you could drink in a one-hour session, but was of a far more frivolous nature, and tonight centred around the mystery ‘knicker thief’ and the arrival of Rupert Snatch-Kiss.
The womenfolk of Fekenham had cause for concern, as it was their underwear that seemed to be the thief’s target. So far, half a dozen brassieres, eight pairs of knickers and one basque had been stolen. There had also been the theft of one vest that belonged to Alf Tupperpot, along with a pair of his socks, but no one seemed to pay that any mind or give it any credence.
“So what yer think on it Vi, this underwear purfvert I mean? Has he stole anything o’ yours then?” asked Maybeline.
“Now then don’t ‘e be goin’ ’bout askin’ daft question likes that. If he nicked me undies ‘e would need a forklift t’ carry ’em off now would’n ‘e? I got an arse the size of a water barrel. No ‘e ain’t touched naught ‘o mine,” laughed Vi.
“I’d like t’ ask you all ‘oo you’ think it might ‘ave bin. After all, I can’t think ‘oo in this comoonity would do such a thing. Vile, if’n you ask me,” Rose said, reflectively.
In the ladies’ minds, there was a certain bunch of men who would fit the bill as underwear defalcators. The trio looked with snipers’ eyes toward the snug.
Hidden within said snug sat Ernie Stallworthy; the village poacher, a lit cigarette hanging loosely from his lower lip and a half pint of stout on the table in front of him. Ernie was a thin, grainy sort of man, with a wispy growth of a beard and a puny moustache which looked more like a stain of dirt that sat beneath his crooked nose. His clothes were tatty and torn and covered in mud stains, as though he had spent several nights out in the wild woods of Fekenham Forest which, oddly enough, is precisely what he had been doing, sleeping rough so as to shoot a few paltry rabbits.
Ernie didn’t say much and asked to less but when he did speak he still had the habit of using odd bits of cockney rhyming slang that sometimes confused his fellow villagers.
Opposite Ernie sat Victor Clapp, the owner of Clapp’s Second Hand Car Dealership, a good-natured man dressed in an ill-fitting business suit. Victor was a bulky man with fat fingers adorned with gold rings. He was suited in a cheap, low rent suit and drinking from a tall glass that contained a short drink: vodka and coke. Clapp’s business was located in Muckleford where it regularly sold vehicles of dubious pedigree.
“So,” said Ernie, “tell me what you’ve heard. Who do you think is nicking all these old dears’ bloomers, then?”
“We have,” replied Victor, “three suspects. The vicar, he’s a proper flippin’ villain and no mistake, what with smokin’ all that dope and all; Major Lillycrap, who spends half his time birdwatchin’ with those ex-army binoculars of his. Question is what kinda birds is ‘e watchin? Lastly we have old Maurice Tinkercuss, who, as far as I am concerned, is a right pervert, as he is always chatting to the old ladies in the village, whether they likes it or not. Now his son, Maurice Tinkercuss junior, postman and milkman, is alright. He doesn’t have time t’ go stealing shifts ‘n all. I reckon it is his old father whose pinching bloomers.”
Having finished his summary of a likely candidate for the role of village pervert, Victor took a long swig on his V and C. The ice clinked against his glass as if ringing an end to his diatribe.
“I dunno,” remarked Ernie. “Old Linkthorpe’s a bit of a weirdo, but sniffin’ ladies’ knickers? Nah, I don’t think so. Major Lillycrap, he won medals in the Korean War didn’t he’? Nah, I don’t think so, not the Major. Old Maurice? Hmmm, now there is a dark horse and no mistake. As the public librarian, over in Muckleford, he has too much time on ‘is ‘ands. Hmmm, yeah, I reckon it could be old Maurice, as like as not.”
The rope of suspicion tightened.
Back at the bar was Arthur Bentwhistle, publican, purveyor of fine beers, womaniser and general gossip in chief (second only to Millie Meade) was serving Tom Theobold and Horace Gracegirdle with pints of Jolly Green Finger, a local brew that was a favourite of many citizens from the Fekenham area. He had a captive audience, and by God, he wasn’t going to let go of them easily.
“So then, chaps, that’ll be two quid each, if you don’t mind, and two quid even if you do. Ha ha. Don’t mind me, fellas, I’m only jesting. Now then, if you want my opinion on this twisted individual who’s stealing our women folks’ bloomers and undergarments, and you are going to get it, like it or not—well, I think the answer is as obvious as the nose on dear old Horace’s face, and, no offence meant Horace, but it is a large ‘n aint it?” Tom laughed at this but was glad that it wasn’t he who was the butt of Arthur’s wicked humour. “No, finding the knicker tea leaf is easy peasy,” the barkeeper went on. “Just look for the bloke with the dodgy walk. I guarantee that this will give him away, I mean; it stands to reason don’t it? Women’s undies are bound to chaff a fella’s meat and two veg, and that will cause the gent in question to walk sort of lame like. That is the way to spot our nefarious underwear thief.”
And as the alcohol flowed and senses became dimmer than candlelight in a cave, so Arthur Bentwhistle’s dubious logic was more and more heeded, until eventually the citizens of Fekenham all agreed to keep a weather eye out for a man with a strange walk.
In the snug Brigadier Largepiece, stiff upper lip and starched collar was addressing the vicar.
“You know what with this ‘Knicker thief nonsense and this ruddy billionaire sticking his oar in, the village seems to be going to the dogs. I mean, what with having a pervert on the loose, if that wasn’t bad enough, we now have a man, and with some clout too, moving in with all these big ideas. I really wonder if the villagers understand what he means to do?”
The vicar shifted his bottom from one cheek to the other, sniffed loudly, sucked in a lungful of smoke from a fat reefer then gulped at his whisky.
“They take things slowly. Things have to percolate before they truly sink in,” replied Linkthorpe.
“There is also that odious man Fliphook. He has been hanging about lately. He asked after you the other day.”
“Me?” queried the vicar.
“Yes, said he had some information for you. Sort of tapped his nose in a conspiratorial way. Shifty looking bugger if you ask me.”
Linkthorpe blinked. His eyes red slits.
“I don’t like the man. I have never had anything to do with him but he strikes me as unpleasant.”
The Brigadier nodded in agreement. “He’s a racist you know, part of some clandestine, secret society where they sport cows horns and salute a black and red flag with a cross on it.”
“No idea old man. I just know I do not like the chap. What about this American Verity has shacked up with?”
Linkthorpe sat upright, suddenly energised.
“Don’t trust him…I do not trust him, not one little bit,” he slurred belching potent whisky fumes.
“Seems a decent enough cove to me. At least, he’s not like that Snatch-Kiss fellow, who has come into the village with a view to changing it. You aren’t still holding a flame for Verity are you?”
“Even if I was, she has no interest in me. I rather like that blonde Arthur’s got behind the bar, though.”
“Delores Dewhip? Hmmm, it’s Lupini I feel sorry for. Arthur has the instincts of an alley cat. I’ll never know how that poor woman puts up with him.”
Linkthorpe rubbed his nose vigorously. The Brigadier suspected the vicar had a runny nose but lacking handkerchief and too inebriated to go to the gents selected to wipe it with the back of his hand.
“Coming back to what you were saying early, about Snatch-Kiss and the knicker thief, not that I think they are one and the same, I don’t think there is much you can do about the former as you haven’t a clue what he is up too. The knicker thief is another thing. Have you any idea who it might be?”
The Brigadier expelled a forceful note. “Hah! I don’t suspect anyone…I know who it is!”
“You do?” muttered a perplexed cleric. “Who?”
“Major Vivian Lillycrap of course. The man is riddled with perversion.”
Sat in the lounge bar, near to Fekenham’s widows three, postmistress Cybil Lovelock was dreaming of Police Constable Cyril Updike. The thought of him made her knees wobble. She overheard the conversation the others were having about the so-called knicker thief, took out her pen and pad and wrote down this poem.
Deep in the dark of night, as the village is asleep, The knicker thief of Fekenham does a midnight creep. He sneaks around the village, looking rather silly, wearing ladies’ undies that chaff and tickle his willy. His face is a mystery, and no one knows his name, As he steals ladies’ underwear, come sunshine, hail or rain. He doesn’t care what he takes, panties, bras or basques, anything that is ladylike or befits his sordid task.
Always incognito, just like the Lone Ranger, courting adverse publicity, to which he is no stranger. We should run a lottery to try and guess his name, and see which vile pervert we can put into the frame. And on the day we catch him we must promise not to mock, but dress him up in Chantilly lace and make him wear a frock.
Outside, somewhere not that distant, plans were being made that would change the village of Fekenham Swarberry forever.