It was the sound of a cherry-coloured Audi Q7, swinging in from the pitted C-road onto the newly laid gravel in the driveway opposite that announced the arrival, at last, of the new neighbours.
“Vulgar car,” said Mrs Jolly, turning away from the drawing room window in irritation. Mrs Jolly – queen bee around these parts, 20 years a widow and still hunting side-saddle – already knew the new owners of the Grange wouldn’t be to her taste. When the chap from the estate agent had come to remove the For Sale placard she’d collared him: the new fellow was something in headhunting, apparently.
Then Frank Parsley had come by – dear Frank, deaf as a post, thick as mince and with a face like corned beef – in quite a tizzy. His sheep had grazed the Grange’s bottom field for 15 years and more, but now he’d had a solicitor’s letter saying the new owners wanted him off. “'Ave to take little bastards down to far field by road now,” he grumbled.
For months, diggers and mixers had churned up and down the lane. The lichen-covered stone facing of the Grange had been pressure-washed until it shone as grey as fresh breeze block. A tennis court went in where they’d torn out the apple trees. And the driveway was now so heavy with honey-coloured gravel it stood proud of the grass verge – thick as the carpet in a tart’s parlour.
But what really annoyed Mrs Jolly were the ball finials. At the end of the drive, where the old wooden gate had been, was now one of those electronic ones flanked by a pair of spanking-new gateposts, which stood right across the lane from Mrs Jolly’s own weathered old posts. As if in mockery, each one was capped with a giant stone globe. Nothing in itself wrong with that – Mrs Jolly’s gateposts, too, had ball finials.
It was no accident, Mrs Jolly knew, that her neighbour’s driveway additions stood just an inch taller than her own. Nor that those finials – she knew, because she’d seen that architect sizing hers up when he thought she wasn’t looking – were constructed to be exactly one inch greater in diameter than those that had sat atop the Jolly gateposts since the 18th century. It wouldn’t bloody do.
“This won’t bloody do,” were very nearly the words Johnny Sullivan uttered when, leaving the house a bare few days later, he scraped the offside wheel arch of the Q7 on something that turned out to be the ball finial from his own gatepost. It was sitting in a puddle in the lane. A blackish smudge – as if a sledgehammer had made contact with the pale stone – was visible. Sullivan hoofed it out of the road, muddying his Bruno Magli loafers in the process. The BlackBerry Z10 – speed-dialling the architect – was already at his ear as he gunned the Audi away.
It was that old cow in the place opposite, no question. He’d seen the looks she’d given those finials – as if she had some divine bloody monopoly on gateposts. She’d probably bribed some local hayseed to come out with a sledgehammer. Well, she’d see.
Of course, Mrs Jolly allowed herself a wintry smile when she saw he’d lost one of his finials. She knew who he thought was to blame. He could think what he liked. She didn’t smile the following week, though, when she looked out of the window to see that one of her own gateposts had now been decapitated. When she saw him leaving his drive she pulled on her gardening gloves and stomped out to intercept.
The burly man in a camel coat facing off against an old woman in ancient cords and padded gilet might seem an unequal contest. But not so – in the middle of the lane, these two danced a mazurka of indignant denial and angry recrimination. Just as violence or, worse, the mention of lawyers seemed imminent, the sound of an approaching vehicle obliged them to step into the ditch.
A lorry the size of a barn roared round the corner, its contents, an entire flock of sheep, bleating stupidly. Behind the wheel was puce-faced, deaf old Frank Parsley. The vehicle clattered between the two properties, taking precisely the middle route. One giant metal wing mirror clipped the remaining stone ball atop Mrs Jolly’s gatepost; and a mere moment later the other struck the remaining stone ball atop that of the Grange. With soggy thumps, both plunged to earth.