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It was a chilly December night and mischief was afoot. The village of Ratsbottom was in complete darkness. This was nothing out of the ordinary as Ratsbottom was as dark as the grave most nights. Most nights, but not the week before Christmas. At this time of year, the village usually resembled a scene from a Christmas card, with window boxes and ornamental trees festooned with twinkling lights. Not this year. This year there was a definite lack of sparkle in Ratsbottom. A mysterious saboteur had been hard at work, snipping the wires of some villagers’ twinkling light shows.

Leopold ‘call me Leo’ Conan, a former thespian with a penchant for drama, poured Marty McMullery a generous glug of mulled wine, placed the jug on the table between them, sat back, and took a puff on his Belge pipe, the embers glowing like coals on a brazier. He raised his glass. ‘I would wish you festive cheer, but there’s little of that about with this gloomy cloud hanging over the village. This is a curious business and make no mistake.’
‘Should you really be smoking that in here?’ Marty pointed at the pipe and raised his eyes to the Medieval barn’s old, rutted wooden beams.
‘I won’t tell if you won’t,’ Leo smiled, displaying a row of clenched teeth.
‘The aroma might be a bit of a giveaway?’ Marty sniffed loudly to emphasise his point.
‘I think not.’ Leo removed the pipe from his mouth and held it up. ‘This is the sweetest Jamaican Blue Mountain blend. People will just think I’ve been cooking up a batch of my famous hash brownies.’
‘Don’t you mean hash browns?’
‘No.’ Leo chomped his teeth around the pipe’s bit and winked. ‘Anyway, the pipe helps me focus, and this strange affair requires a strenuous mental workout.’
‘It has never happened before? There isn’t a village Scrooge with a hatred for the festive season who goes a bit psycho with the secateurs at this time of year?’
‘If there is anyone with selaphobia, they’ve only developed it over the last twelve months. People put Christmas lights up every year, and this is the first time anyone has taken exception to them.’
‘Interesting.’ Marty sat back in his chair. ‘That would suggest the culprit is someone who moved to Ratsbottom since last Christmas.’
‘Like you.’ Leo pointed out.
‘It wasn’t me.’ Marty objected.
‘I know.’
‘How?’ Marty asked. ‘How do you know?’
‘Because your lights were cut last week.’
‘Maybe that was as a decoy.’ Marty smiled what he thought was an enigmatic smile.
‘Plus, you were at the Christmas concert tonight,’ Leo waved his pipe at Marty. ‘And Alice Miller’s lights were snipped during the concert.’
‘The English teacher who lives at Chestnut Cottage?’
‘The very one.’ Leo nodded.
‘So, we can rule out everyone who was at the concert.’
Leo nodded again. ‘But that doesn’t really help, there was hardly anyone at the concert; half the village have succumbed to the flu.’
‘Or claim they have.’
‘Maybe it was badgers. They’ve been known to cause havoc, haven’t they?’
‘They have, my Oirish friend.’ Leo said, sounding like a posh bloke putting on an Irish accent, which is exactly what he was. ‘However, a badger with a taste for Christmas lights seems highly unlikely, especially as they virtually hibernate at this time of year.’
‘Hmm,’ Marty rubbed his chin. ‘So, who does that leave? Who else moved to the village this year.’
‘Tim. Tim Dummock.’ Leo sat forward. ‘You might be onto something there. Did you know he was an environmentalist?’
‘I think I did hear something about that.’
‘He’s in one of those extreme groups, you know. They’re called See the Light or something like that. Ironically, they protest about light pollution.’
‘Aha indeed. In fact, he was carted off to the police station earlier this week for chaining himself to the new lamppost at Hinkley Bottom.’
‘You mean the only lamppost in Hinkley Bottom.’
‘Not even that anymore.’ Leo sighed. ‘Last night, a farmer came round the corner too fast at the Nun’s Thatch and ploughed right into it with his John Deere. Said he wasn’t expecting to see a light there; completely blinded him. Said lamppost is no more.’
‘When did you say Tim Dummock was lifted by the police?’
‘Err,’ Leo chewed on his pipe as he thought. ‘Tuesday. They kept him in overnight, to teach him a lesson and calm him down.’
‘It wasn’t Tim then. Maisy Hill’s Christmas lights were cut on Tuesday night.’
‘That lovely young woman who works at Citizens Advice in Taunton? Damn and blast. I thought we were onto something.’ Leo scowled. ‘That’s that line of enquiry squished then. There are no other newcomers to the village apart from you two.’
‘Then Secateur Scrooge is somebody who has lived here longer.’ Marty pointed out. ‘I thought you said this was a nice village with good people?’
‘It is.’ Leo looked hurt. ‘They are. But people everywhere have their foibles.’
‘Just because someone has expensive and tasteful curtains doesn’t mean dark things aren’t taking place behind them.’
‘Speak with a plum in your mouth doesn’t automatically make you … make one … a good egg.’
‘Yes, yes, you’ve made your point,’ Leo replied, somewhat snappily.
‘But,’ Marty sat forward. ‘If this is the first time this has occurred, then something must have happened to make someone behave in such an antisocial way.’
‘Aha!’ Leo announced, looking pleased with himself. ‘Bunty Foster-Snide. She’s changed. Got a severe case of dementia, the poor old dear. Gone completely doolally. Came trotting down the street in her riding jacket and boots the other day.’
‘What’s wrong with that? I’ve often seen her riding through the town.’
‘That’s all she was wearing … and she wasn’t on a horse.’ Leo screwed up his face. ‘I’d just finished a lunch of oysters washed down with a bottle of fizz; the whole damn lot nearly came back up again. The sight has put me off shellfish for life.’ He sucked on his pipe for a few seconds, mulling over the possibility Bunty Foster-Snide might be the Secateur Scrooge. ‘Can’t be Bunty now I come to think of it. Her husband Simon has confined her to quarters ever since. Locks the old dear in her room at night.’
‘A feud then.’
‘A feud?’ Leo snorted. ‘There are no feuds in Ratsbottom, darling, only polite disaccords.’
‘What about car wars?’
‘That’s just a piece of silly nonsense. More mulled wine?’
‘On you go.’ Marty held out his glass. ‘It seems quite acrimonious to me. There’s been some rum things scrawled in the muck on the back of Charlie Martin’s van. “Move this stinking heap of excrement you scumbag—”
‘You maggot, you cheap lousy…’ sang Leo. ‘Sorry, couldn’t resist, old chap.’
‘… And, in reply,’ Marty continued, ignoring Leo’s interjection. ‘Charlie, presumably, wrote “Mind your own business you withered old hag.” That’s more than silly nonsense in my book.’
‘Ouch!’ Leo exclaimed, poking at the end of his pipe. ‘That is conduct unbecoming. But let me ask you this.’ He pointed the end of the pipe at Marty. ‘We know who one of the combatants in this bruising banter is, Charlie Martin obviously, but the other remains anonymous.’
‘It’s Melanie Black.’
‘Where’s your evidence?’
‘She’s an interfering busybody.’
‘Objection m’lord,’ shouted Leo theatrically. ‘A meddler she may be, but that’s no proof of criminal behaviour.’
‘I still reckon she’s the one.’
‘Point two, has Charlie’s lights been cut?’
‘Charlie doesn’t put up Christmas decorations, it’s not his style.’
‘Has Melanie the meddler’s lights been snipped?’
‘Not as far as I know, but her neighbours, Ken and Liz Francis had theirs cut … twice.’
‘Curiouser and curiouser.’ Leo puffed on his pipe. He stood up and paced around the old barn. ‘If Charlie is the culprit and it is a feud, that means he thinks either Ken or Liz is his nemesis, probably Liz given the withered old hag remark. And none of the three of them were at the Christmas service tonight. But Ken and Liz are a sweet, sweet couple, nice as pie to everyone. They devote much of their time to dishing out soup to the homeless in Taunton. They are not the sort of people to get their bloomers in a twist over an erroneously parked van. No, I can’t believe either of them are involved in this car wars business. And, another thing, if it was a personal feud and, say for argument’s sake, they were involved. Why would Charlie cut the lights of half the village and not just theirs?’
‘To throw people off the scent.’ Marty explained. ‘There was this episode of Columbo once where the murderer killed four people to conceal who it was they really wanted dead. Maybe Charlie cut a lot of lights because if he only cut those of the person he really wanted to get back at, it would give him away. And anyway, it wasn’t half the village.’
Leo spun on his heels and stared at Marty. ‘What did you just say?’
‘Which bit?’
‘Never mind.’ Leo was beaming. ‘You, my Oirish mucker are a Celtic genius.’ He tapped the end of his pipe. ‘Yes, of course. Of course.’ He rested his hands on the arms of Marty’s chair, staring manically into his face. ‘Meet me outside Tim Dummock’s house tomorrow night at seven and bring some Christmas lights. You and I are going on a stakeout. The game is afoot.’
‘Forget it. If you think I’m sitting outside Tim Dummock’s house all night waiting for a mad eejit with secateurs you’ve got another thing coming.’
‘It won’t be all night,’ Leo reassured Marty. ‘It will be a couple of hours tops, trust me. This is Ratsbottom, most villagers are tucked up in bed by nine. Anyway, I know who the Secateur Scrooge is.’
‘You’ll have to join me tomorrow night to find out.’
‘Okay, you’re on.’ Marty replied, intrigued. ‘And Leo?’
‘Yes, Marty?’
‘In the name of the wee man, will you stop saying Oirish.’

Twenty-four hours later, and Marty and Leo were back in the old barn, this time sharing the contents of Leo’s hip flask, a rather ornate silver affair engraved with ‘Totus mundus agit histrionem.’
‘Bottoms up,’ toasted Leo, taking a swig from the flask before pouring some into a paper cup in Marty’s hand. ‘Here’s to a dynamic duo.’
‘Winifred Smythe, who would have thought.’ Marty shook his head slowly from side to side. ‘Chairperson of the village Christmas committee. What a scandal. She was mortified when you jumped out of that bush just as she was about to cut through the wire. Her face crumpled in on itself with shame when you bellowed, “Winifred Smythe, J’accuse…!” But did you see the way she almost snarled when she spotted me. I’ve hardly even spoken to the woman.’
‘But you have spoken to her.’ Leo reminded Marty. ‘You told me at the time.’
‘Once, just before the by-election in November when she came round the house canvassing with that chinless eejit Jasper Smalldick.’
‘And do you remember how you reacted?’
‘Told them to sling their hook. I’d never vote for that lot. Both of them were puce with anger.’
‘And did you happen to mention who you would be voting for?’
‘I don’t need to hide my politics. I’m not ashamed of wanting a fairer society.’
‘Ah, my naïve young friend, but you do. Broadcasting your politics is just not the done thing, especially if those politics happen to be red-hued. My god,’ Leo raised the back of his hand to his forehead. ‘This is the South West, my dear, you’d get a less hostile reaction if you were caught eating a baby than being found to be a leftie. Smallick and his party suffered a humiliating defeat, and you put your head above the parapet. Winifred wanted payback so tried to put a dampener on your Christmas.’
‘It seems extreme,’ Marty said. ‘But I guess you know how the wheels of village life turn. How did you know it was her?’
‘When you made that remark about it not being half the village who’d had their lights cut, I mentally compiled a list of the victims. You. Alice Miller. Ken and Liz Francis. Maisy Hill. And Tim Dummock … even though technically it was us who put lights up outside his house. The connection became rather obvious. A teacher; a couple who help the homeless; someone who advises society’s most disadvantaged; and an environmentalist. It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to deduce where their political affiliations lie. It was as much who she didn’t target as who she did that made me suspect it was someone on a mission of revenge following the by-election. And, as you very well know, Winifred was a vociferous campaigner for Jasper Smallick.’
‘So, what do we do next?’ Marty asked. ‘Report her to the police? Expose her wrongdoings to the rest of the village?’
‘Neither. We’re occupying the moral high ground, let us sit here and wallow in that delicious knowledge. As for Winnie, living with the shame of being caught red-handed will be punishment enough. She’ll behave from now on, I can assure you of that. Reputation is everything and we can destroy hers in the blink of an eye if she so much as teeters out of line. It has been a most satisfying night’s work, don’t you think? Another snifter to celebrate?’
‘Why not. What’s that?’ Marty raised his cup to the barn’s arched windows, where white, puffy grenades exploded softly against the mottled glass.
‘Well, well, well. It’s snowing,’ marvelled Leo. He lifted his paper cup. ‘Merry Christmas my Oir … Celtic leftie chum.’
‘Happy Christmas to you, my posh, privileged pal. Sláinte.’

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Jack Montgomery

Jack is an author, travel writer, photographer, and a Slow Travel consultant who has been writing professionally for twenty years. Follow Jack on Facebook for information about his writing, travel tips, photographs, and tales of life in a tiny rural village in Somerset.

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Some of the items on this site won’t be to everyone’s liking, I get that. Basically this is my place, my wee studio to mess around in – experimenting with words and thoughts. I’ll be chuffed if you enjoy it, but if you don’t, c’est la vie. As a friend used to tell me “it would be a boring life if we all thought the same.”

Jack Montgomery
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The Setúbal Peninsula,