The Village Alchemist By Rebecca Woodhead

Molly Smithson had always been a tuning fork for gossip, with every newsworthy whisper that reached her environs tuned to the perfect pitch for the next recipient. Of late, Molly had refined this craft with such expertise that she had graduated from tuning fork to Gossip Alchemist.

As Molly strode to the village shop, down narrow streets that wound between the cottages of Uppish-On-The-Wold, she pounced with panther-like stealth on all her fellow villagers to devour the latest news. Although they all complained about her nosiness, the twinkly blue eyes that peered out from behind dark lashes had a way of pulling news out of them. Specks of gossip flew towards Molly like metal filings to a magnet and, in no time at all, she had smelted them down and turned them into pure gossip gold.

On a sunny morning in early June, Molly was in the queue at the shop counter. Her basket was packed with biscuits, milk, cake and other tea-related paraphernalia for a gossip she had planned with Hetty Barboury-Bassett from the next village. Molly could not be doing with loose leaves and teapots but she had made sure to pick up the Earl Grey and Darjeeling tea bags. She did not want ‘Posh Hetty’ to think she only drank ‘builder’s tea.' Just as she was counting out her pennies, ready to move to the front of the queue, she overheard two people near the Cornish Pasty and sausage roll fridge whispering. She pricked up her ears.

‘No Gerald,’ said a female voice, ‘she won’t be able to stop here long enough. William and Harry are at the Royal South West on Saturday. They’ll need to get home.’

Molly gasped. The Royal South West was a huge country show. She knew Zara, the cousin of the royal brothers, had competed there in the past and the two princes were known to attend almost every year. It couldn’t be true, but it must. Princes William and Harry were coming to the duck race on Saturday before they went to the show. Just as Molly thought she could not be more excited, she remembered another part of the conversation. There was a ‘she’ in the sentence that had been whispered with such reverence. Who could it be but...

‘The Queen!’ Molly blurted as she reached the counter.

‘Pardon?’ asked the shopkeeper.

Molly looked around. The two others had left.

‘You’ll never believe it Mr Stafford. Something amazing is happening this weekend.’

‘The duck race? Well, it’s nice and all but it happens every year Love.’

‘Yes it does. It does. That’s why she is honouring us with her presence no doubt. The duck race is important to the community. It is a symbol of all it means to be British.’

‘Well, now, you’re pushing it there. It’s some plastic ducks and a stream. It’s for the kiddies.’

‘Yes it is. It’s for the kiddies, as you say. It’s our way of sharing the village with the next generation and that’s why the village is now so important to the people at the top of the country.’

‘People at the top? What are you blathering about now Molly? You mean the politicians? Do you not watch the news? My Council Tax is a blooming scandal. Why would they care about a duck race?’

Molly sighed with impatience. Usually she had a bit of time to spin an elegant tale and she felt the gilt was wearing off her golden gossip.

‘Not the politicians Mr S. The Queen.’

‘What?’ Mr Stafford looked rattled. ‘This weekend?’

‘The very same.’ Molly smiled as her gossip hit the bullseye.

‘But why? Who said?’

‘It’s very hush-hush. I heard it from a reliable source. It is being whispered that both the princes will be here too: William and Harry!’

‘The young princes? In Uppish-on-the-Wold? Would they come into the shop do you think?’

‘They might. In fact, they will. We should have a big party. I’ll organise it.’

No sooner had Molly left the shop than Mr Stafford had the ‘back in five minutes’ sign up on the door as he searched through the old boxes in his storeroom for the strings of bunting he had saved from the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. They’d enjoyed a brief dusting off for the village Millenium party but this time he planned to give the bunting a really good clean. The Queen was coming to Uppish-on-the-Wold.

Mr Stafford walked through to the shop and looked at the wall behind the counter. He would move the health and safety notice and the poster urging people to buy local sausages. That would make space for a huge photo of him, the Queen and a bunting-bedecked Uppish Stores.

By the time Molly had returned to her cottage, she had already told three more villagers about the imminent arrival of their monarch. Donna Warren had a friend who was a florist. She would almost certainly provide them with some flowers and Donna’s own garden was brimming full of roses and sweet peas she could pick and bring into the street to decorate the post box and lamp posts. Hannah Burlington had already offered to bake cakes for Duck Race Day – there was no harm in her baking a few more. Mr Finch offered to bring Humbug – his old black and white cob – down from the farm. He’d throw a harness on him and polish up the old trap.

‘Her Majesty could go for a ride down the street in the trap if she wanted. It’s no Cinderella carriage but it’s good for a laugh.’

‘Absolutely,’ Molly agreed. ‘Of course both William and Harry will be here and they might want to, even if the Queen decides not to. Bring Humbug along Mr Finch.’

Duck Race Day finally arrived. The bridge over the stream where the race was to take place was covered in beautiful flowers from Donna’s garden. Her florist friend had brought in boxes and boxes of flowers which decorated everything from the telephone box to Uppish Stores. Bunting flapped joyously between the lamp posts and all along the main street, trestle tables covered with paper tablecloths were laden with cakes, homemade jams and yellow marzipan ducks. She had even invited Hetty Barboury-Bassett and her friends. She was going to be the talk of the villages for months.

Molly liked to think that she had organised the whole thing but secretly she knew that the moment word got around that the Queen and Princes William and Harry were coming to the village nothing would have stopped them putting together the best party in the county.

Lady Amsptonford was due to open Duck Race Day at ten o’ clock. Molly was desperate to see whether the Queen would be with her or not. As the Bentley approached, Molly could see only one other passenger in the back seat. The princes were certainly not there and she could not make out whether the person in the back was the Queen as she was almost completely obscured from sight by a large box on her lap.

The village was poised for their royal guest and, despite appearances to the contrary as the car parked, Mr Finch stroked Humbug’s neck in anticipation of what could be the horse’s greatest moment. The local television and radio crews positioned themselves for the big news story. Molly had been certain they would want to capture the moment so she had called them. She nodded to the school band who began to play ‘God Save the Queen’ as the rear door opened. With all cameras pointing at her, the visitor emerged from the car. It was not the Queen.

Once Lady Amsptonford had made her speech on the bridge and complimented the villagers on the outstanding displays of food and flowers, she introduced her guest.

‘It is with great excitement that I introduce a surprise guest today. Mrs Highfield is, as some of you may know, a prize-winning breeder of Aylesbury ducks and we are very grateful to her for bringing with her two of her finest to compete today. They can’t stay for long as they need to get ready for their competition at the Royal South West this afternoon but I’m sure you’ll all give a warm welcome to... William and Harry!’

Molly wanted to disappear. She felt sure that the whole village would turn on her for her mistake but instead they just laughed. Hetty patted her on the back ‘daft old mare’ she said to her friend. ‘Come on, let’s race ducks’ and they threw their plastic ducks into the stream along with all the others.

In the end, Harry and William didn’t want to race. They were quite content bobbing around and quacking at the locals. Humbug was happy to ferry giggling children up and down the village, and the cakes and jams all sold out. Everyone agreed it was the best Duck Race Day ever.

When Molly next went into Uppish Stores, she couldn’t help but grin as she saw the photo behind the counter. Mr Stafford smiling proudly in front of his bunting-covered shop with William under one arm and Harry under the other.

©Rebecca Woodhead 2009

Rebecca Woodhead  – (23 May 2009 at 18:32)  

Apologies if any of the formatting went wrong. Blogger wouldn't let me format anything so I had to put in some random html and I'm not great with that.

Sandra Leigh  – (23 May 2009 at 18:45)  

Duck races! When I was in Oxford last year, I saw signs advertising the duck races, and I really wished I were going to be there at the right time. Splendid tradition. Funny story.

The Old Gray Egg  – (23 May 2009 at 19:54)  

That was a great story. It sucked me right in, and being a Yank, I'm not easily drawn into tales of the Royals. The rapid pace and exotic scenes (for me) were what make short stories so fun.

Rebecca Woodhead  – (23 May 2009 at 20:44)  

Thanks for the comments. plastic duck races...cheese rolling...Jumping in the river on May Day...morris dancers... it's an odd country isn't it? Glad you liked the story Sandra.

Welcome to the blog The Old Gray Egg. I'm really glad you got sucked in. Hope you liked the twist!

London Belle  – (24 May 2009 at 00:38)  

Its a sweet and funny story, thanks for sharing. Would love to go to one of those places - very English village, you write it well.

Bonnie  – (24 May 2009 at 00:46)  

Haha! That was so great Rebecca! You paint such a beautiful story, I can visualize everything. I wish I could see that tradition in person. One day I'll make it across the pond :)

Rebecca Woodhead  – (24 May 2009 at 09:11)  

London Belle. Glad I made you smile. When you've got some pennies for a National Express ticket, you should come down to the Cotswolds for a day. It's very beautiful.

Bonnie. Thanks for the lovely comment, I'm so glad you like the descriptions. When you finally make it across the pond, New Englander, tweet me first and I'll give you a list of the best/cheapest/most charming places to stay in Olde England. I'll take you to a real English pub if you like. x

Angie Ledbetter  – (24 May 2009 at 18:26)  

Glad I got to read the rest of the story.

Rebecca Woodhead  – (24 May 2009 at 20:43)  

Thanks Angie and thanks so much for the mini-crit. Really got me thinking. :)

Katia Borin  – (24 June 2009 at 18:38)  

Lovely story, and nicely crafted details. Thank you for sharing this!

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