The Wickedest Man in the Village

Aileen had never wanted to move to a village. She was full of scorn when the estate agent suggested they take a look at the two new houses in the top lane.

“Rising damp, crumbling cottages, church suppers, coffee mornings, no thanks.”

The sales agent was persuasive, “You’ll be just off the main road, easy ride into town, good bus service. You really wouldn’t have to go into the village at all. The houses are lovely; there’s been a lot of interest.”

So they went to look. Bob was smitten. “Look at this view, fields, woods; a nice stroll down the lane for papers or milk. We’ll get a dog, good exercise.”

So far Aileen had managed to avoid the village completely. She drove herself to town where she shopped and lunched with her friends, playing the ‘we’re doing better than you’ game at which she excelled. She never mentioned Bob’s lay off, and the need to down size, hinting instead at important consulting work, ‘brings in quite a bit, but of course he can’t talk about it.’ And she was well ahead in the ensuite versus wet room contest, having two bathrooms to boast about, with upscale fittings and power showers. She let it be known that her new house was detached and never discussed the déclassé neighbors who lived in the second house, sadly in full view. From her front room she looked out on their messy forecourt with its heap of bicycles, and piles of construction materials, presumably a conservatory in the making. She of course would never have such a thing.  No, she was keen on a studio room situated at the end of the long garden. “I might pick up my painting again.”

Bob took to village life; he had found a golfing partner from the big house at the end of the green and sat on the music festival committee with someone called ‘Ron from the bungalows’; he went regularly to the monthly Wednesday nights at the pub to hear various writers and story tellers, and had promised to attend the upcoming Best Kept Village planning meeting. Aileen had been scathing, “We’ll be seeing you on Midsommer, next.”

Then Bob broke his ankle badly, jumping over stiles with the dog, and was left unable to do his promised Christmas fund raising calls around the village.

“You’ll have to go for me, Aileen.”

“I’m not going, can’t someone else do it?”

“No, it’s supposed to be a personal visit, season’s greetings and all that. There are some who don’t go out much and it’s a way of checking on them.”

“Why can’t people just bring the money to the church or somewhere? What’s it for, anyway?”

“The Christmas carol concert and the roof fund.”

Aileen shuddered. “Knocking on peoples’ doors and shaking a tin isn’t my idea of fun. I’ve never even been round the village, how will I know who’s who?”

“I’ve got a list, it’s just round the green, really, not the lanes or the farms, or the outlying cottages. You won’t be shaking a tin. There’s an envelope with the names and I’ve written in the cottage descriptions. It won’t take long, give you a chance to meet people.”

“All right, just this once, but you’re not enrolling me in any more of your silly village efforts.”

Pulling on her boots and cloak, she set off down the lane. Slender trees stood black against a cloudy sky, a damp, smoky mist drifted down the lane. Looking back she could just see her house. It looked oddly tilted, and she had never realized it was such a yellowy color. The settling mist drifted across the garden turning the bushes into pig shapes. Cows mooed somewhere to her right; she heard the clanking sound of buckets and then that faded.  Was there a farm over there? Wasn’t it just fields? Bob would know, strange, though, he had never mentioned a farm. Well, it was getting chilly; she pulled her scarf over her hair, better get on.

She came to the end of the lane; the village spread itself around the green; it looked quite pretty really, like an old painting. A whiff of manure and a creaking of wheels, a dog scampered past, and a cart lumbered by, the driver hunched over the reins. “Evening, Ma’am.” God, it was too rustic!

Peering at Bob’s list, Aileen oriented herself.  The first cottage was Old Margaret; then a few other cottages and she could go right round the green, some bungalows and more cottages, finishing up at the bigger house at the end. She pushed the gate to Old Margaret’s cottage. It stuck on the uneven path and screeched as she pushed it back. The knocker was a twisted iron rope, black against the blue door. Aileen knocked twice; the cottage was silent, she supposed Old Margaret was deaf, or slow or something, maybe give it one more try. She rapped out a brisk, rat-a-tat-tat, and was turning away when the door swung open.

Old Margaret stood on the threshold; she was tall, dressed in some sort of long skirt and shawl. Aileen smelled tobacco, was there a Mr. Old Margaret?  Then the woman pulled a clay pipe from her pocket, jamming it into the corner of her mouth.  Aileen held up her envelope. “Collecting for the church… I’m Aileen, Bob’s wife.”

Old Margaret didn’t answer, but beckoned her in. The cottage was incredibly small, just one room downstairs, with a bit of a scullery at the back. It smelled of smoke, lavender and spirits. Old Margaret opened a cupboard in the wall over the fireplace and withdrew a bottle and two small glasses; she held them up to Aileen.

Aileen nodded. “Thank you.” Old Margaret poured the yellow liquid and handed her a glass. Aileen was tempted somehow to say ‘slainte’,  ‘cheers’, didn’t seem right, but Old Margaret held up her glass saying nothing, so Aileen did the same, and sipped; the drink had a strong winey flavor, sweet without being cloying.  Old Margaret sipped slowly and stared at her. Her eyes were cloudy, her gaze vague, her lips moved and she stretched out a hand to Aileen,

Obviously senile, thought Aileen, why hadn’t Bob warned her? She smiled, “Well, I must be getting on, um …would you care to make a contribution?”

Old Margaret remained motionless, hand extended, then turned and faded back into the scullery.

Aileen let herself out, closing the blue door behind her. She skipped the next few cottages; there were no names on the list and they looked quite shut up, holiday cottages, maybe. She came to the end of the row and found herself facing the pub set at an angle at the foot of a little set back where there were two small, older buildings, but with new windows and front doors. Aileen rapped on the first door. A young woman opened it.

“Church collection.” Aileen showed her envelope.

‘Oh yes, come in, it’s chilly out. You’re Aileen, Bob’s wife, right? I’m Liz.”

She ushered her into a kitchen, with a fireplace and settle. “Dreadfully small these places, I don’t know how people managed in the old days. I’m on the list for housing. Out on the main road, they’re building, three beds, inside lav. I can’t wait to get some space, get my kids back. Here, sit down, you’ll have a cup of tea? Kettle’s on, I was just about to have a cup.”

Aileen sat on the settle, while the girl, rummaging about on the dresser, produced cups and a teapot. She shook the teapot upside down and retrieved three pound coins, which she tossed on the table. She flung tea bags into the cups, poured on water from the whistling kettle and handed Aileen her cup and a miniature brandy. “No milk, sorry. No point going next door, he’s away again, musician, travels all over. Where else have you been?”

“Just Old Margaret’s, I’m going this way round.”

Liz looked puzzled. “Old Margaret? That’s a sad story, she has been moved into a care home, getting a little strange she was, kept saying someone had been in her bed; I should be so lucky.”

“Well, someone was there, I went in.”

Liz twitched her tea bag out of her cup. “Must have been her niece, little redhead? Piece of work that one, she‘s suppose to be clearing out the place.”

“No, an old woman, tall, with a pipe, she gave me wine.”

“Maybe it was Leila, she is always poking around other people’s houses, and they should do something about her too.  She’s in the next to last cottage on the other side. More tea?”

“No, thanks, I must get on.”

Liz came to the door with her. “Brrr, it’s getting cold. Here, you can cut straight across; Jen, in that posh house, is away. There’s old people in that first bungalow, nice old things and Ron’s next door, watch out for him, wickedest man in the village he is.”

Aileen stepped out and looked about her. Lights were showing in the cottage windows; mist and smoke from the pub chimneys floated into the trees and hung in spectral shapes. Aileen shivered, she looked at her list again, Betty and Harold straight across. Must be that one with the little green gate. She was somehow reluctant to cross the green, perhaps better to follow the road around. Maybe Liz was watching her.


She tried to walk briskly. It had begun to rain and buildings on the other side dissolved into greyness. She felt disoriented. A cold rush of wind pulled at her scarf and, stumbling she put out her hand. Something rough and woolly jumped away from her, bleating. A sheep? Now she could smell manure again and the same cart she had seen before rumbled past, this time piled high with sacks; again the driver acknowledged her, tipping his hat. The wind picked up and blew the mists aside. Opposite two derelict sagging cottages leaned against each other, unpainted, their thatch shredding. Maybe she had missed Betty and Harold, and Ron. Was one of these Leila? The left hand one had a faint light in the window.

Aileen couldn’t see any sign of bungalows. She approached the first cottage. It had a twisted iron rope for a door knocker, like Old Margaret’s. She gave it a good rat-a-tat-tat and waited. There was some shuffling about inside and eventually the door swung open. A bent figure wrapped in a shabby shawl stood there, Leila, presumably.

“Church collection,” said Aileen, showing her envelope, “Bob’s wife.” She followed the old woman into a smokey, brick floored kitchen. Wine glasses were set on a round table in the center; the same yellowy wine was poured and the same silent toast drunk. Leila sank into a wooden chair by the fire. She seemed quite old and frail. Maybe, Aileen thought, she should just leave, obviously no contribution was forthcoming.

“I’ll go then,” she said. She felt guilty leaving; someone should come and see to these old women. Who lived like this, in these days? And that girl, obviously a tart. What was her name, Liz? She thought Bob had mentioned a Liz, in the pub. Well, whatever, they needed a good social worker here, she would bring it up at the next parish council, or rather tell Bob to do so.


Stepping out of Leila’s small garden Aileen bumped into a large stout man.

“Hey, watch out!” He grasped her firmly by the arm. “I’m Ron, are you doing Bob’s list? Look, if you’re done, come over to the pub and have a drink.” He was still holding her arm and steering her back across the green. “We need to get to know you better.”

The pub smelled of wood smoke, sausages and chips.

“Good timing, the ghost teller is here tonight. You’ll love it, great village stories.”

He brought her sherry and a basket of chips and removed her cloak.

Helplessly, Aileen submitted.