Have you ever had one of those patches when everything round you goes a bit mad?
It’s all going on at the moment. Some people blame the Spring, some reckon it’s something to do with the Budget, one or two I’ve bumped into at coffee mornings swear it’s Mars lining up with the last New Moon. Anyway, across-the-road is having a new roof, next-door-but three is getting a divorce, Sue on the corner is having her whole house re-wired, Amy at no. 43 had the BBC in to do her garden last week - which was very exciting as we all love Alan Titchmarsh and a few of us managed to get into shot when the van was toing and froing - and the Council’s on a big recycling drive so we’re all being dutiful citizens and putting the boxes out every week.
And Lesley next door thinks we must have a magpie. She hasn’t seen it yet but when I popped round for a cuppa this morning she took me out the back and showed me where her glass drops used to be, around the shrubs in her terra-cotta planters.
“A fortnight ago,” she said,” I noticed a few missing - mainly blue ones. And every morning there have been fewer and fewer left in the pots! There are one or two still hiding under the leaves but I bet they don’t stay there long. Why do I never see it? They chatter, don’t they?”
“I always thought so.”
It must be a ruddy great magpie then, because the next thing is a very upset Amy in tears at my front door saying someone has stolen the sun-catchers Alan Titchmarsh hung from her apple tree.
“Did you see anyone, Jo? Hear anyone? Who would do a thing like that?”
“Not Leslie’s magpie, that’s for sure. Someone jealous, probably.” She blots the runny mascara with my proffered handkerchief and we seek consolation in coffee.
Now it’s recycling day. Lovely morning, rooks cawing, frogs humping in the water-weed, everything getting pink and pretty. Deep breaths of promising air, and out with the paper box I forgot last night (as usual.) That’s odd. I could have sworn the bottle-bin was full yesterday. Where are Dave’s Guinness bottles? Where’s that chipped blue Pyrex jug I had to chuck out? Where’s the wine bottle I emptied on Monday when Dave forgot our anniversary? I look up and down the empty street. Then start walking, peering into every box outside every garden gate. The only bottles in all the boxes for a hundred yards are clear glass. All the green and brown and Babycham blue have gone.
Over coffee Amy and I are mulling this over.
“Someone’s nicking glass. That’s obvious. Forget kleptomaniac birds. They’re doing it when we’re all fast asleep, and very cleverly too - no noise! But what on earth for?”
“Can you get money for old glass?”
“Must do. Otherwise why would the Council bother?”
“Do you think the Council have noticed?”
Yes they have. Got the local rag today and it’s all over page three.
GLASS RECYCLING PLUMMET’S
Are Local Taste’s Changeing?
Usual cub reporter and hung-over sub-editor. Speculating on the high proportion of vodka and tonic bottles, the apparent local swing from red wine and beer to cheap spirits. Much byzantine analysis by the staff shrinks and medics, none of which bears any relation to what we all think is going on.
“Could it be kids?” wonders Lesley. “They’re fund-raising again.”
“What is it this time? Swimming pool? Squash court?”
“No - the youth club are all going up Kilimanjaro on a sponsored trek to raise awareness of our fragile ecosystem.”
“They’re raising money so they can raise money.”
“Isn’t Kilimanjaro fragile?”
“No-one mentions that.”
“I’ll ask Graham.”
“Would he know?”
“About the bottles.”
Lesley has reported back; it’s definitely not the youth club. Graham opened every cupboard, searched every laptop bag and backpack, even the bins - no stolen glass anywhere. The kids all went home complaining of Lack of Trust.
We’re in my front room - Lesley, Amy, Sue, Margaret from across the road, and several new faces. Even Dave popped his head round the door hoping for a wet, but we all glared at him and he retreated. He can get his own coffee. There’s perfectly good Instant in the kitchen.
“We need to keep watch,” says Amy.
“Stay up all night?” Sue is clearly alarmed at the prospect.
“I know you probably need your sleep at the moment, as does Margaret, with your houses in such a mess, but if we all take turns we might catch them.”
“Suppose they have guns!”
“Oh Margaret don’t be silly. It’s not exactly armed robbery.”
“All we need to do,”says Amy with quiet resolve, “is hide behind our curtains with a camera and snap them in the act.”
“Then show the pictures to the police? We could film them! I had a smart-phone from my daughter at Christmas; it does music, and email, and video, and everything!”
“Lesley! Have you only just got one? Welcome to the 21st century!”
We’ve spent a whole fortnight taking turns at surveillance. Boots will run out of Kick Ass Concealer at this rate, we’re all so bug-eyed. Not a thing. Not a dicky-bird. At least Lesley is now an old hand with her phone. Wine consumption has gone up in Crompton Road but the empties all rattled off to the Council on recycling day. Time for a moratorium.
I’m spooning Lazy Sunday into cafetières. Amy’s in charge of the kettle.
“It’s weird. It’s as if they knew we were watching.”
“I know! D’you think we’ve been bugged?”
“Don’t be daft Amy. Maybe one of us said something.”
“Who’d do that?”
“Anyone. We all gossip.”
“We all promised to stay schtumm. And poor Sue hardly gets out with her house still upside-down. Have you ever been re-wired?”
“I’ve been turned on a few times ...”
“Oh ha-ha. Well we have and there’s mess and brick-dust everywhere for months, long after the men have gone. No quite as bad for Margaret - it’s just the roof.”
We teeter in with coffee-trays. I’m turning into Mrs. Overall. Deirdre from the corner shop is saying, “Robert’s losing his marbles.” There’s a murmur of sympathy; we’re all getting on a bit.
“No!” says Deirdre,”I mean he’s really losing his marbles! Every week the stock is short by at least three nets and he has no idea where they’ve gone.”
“It’s our glass thief. Has to be.”
“Must be a kid.”
“But Sue, how would a kid nick all those bottles without making a noise, without dropping some? I don’t buy it.”
Margaret is looking thoughtful.
“If they were using a car or a van we’d have noticed. Nothing comes through at night. Even a footstep can wake me up.”
“So it has to be someone local. Who do we know who hasn’t been coming to coffee but might know what we’re up to?”
“Oh come on. Men are useless at hiding anything. We’d have found out in five minutes.”
Privately after everyone has gone Lesley says over a foaming sinkful of lipsticky mugs,
“It must be one of us.”
I misfire with the coffee-grounds. It takes half an hour to clean up the kitchen.
Tuesday. Someone’s hammering on the back door. It’s Amy.
“Jo! I found something!”
She holds out her hand, opens her fingers. In Amy’s palm is one small shimmering marble.
“Where did you find that?”
“On the drain cover outside Sue’s!”
“Of course it might just be a fluke ... but might it be worth paying a visit?”
“Could be one of her workmen.”
“But why no action for two weeks? How would he know?”
“Only if Sue told him.”
“Or it’s been Sue all along?”
“Come on. She can put the kettle on for us for a change. With all that nice new wiring.”
We’re at Sue’s kitchen door. Amy taps expectantly. Nobody comes. We can hear movement in the house and the door is ajar so we tiptoe inside.
No answer. Just odd noises from ... below us?
Through the dusty back rooms to the hall - and where no other house in the road has stairs going down we nearly fall through an open trapdoor. There is light just picking out the steps. We are now creeping downward into a brand new basement. With her back to us, oblivious amid heat and noise, is Sue.
I don’t know how we survived the explosion. Sue didn’t. It must have blown us back up into the hallway. Amy and I are slowly recovering from burns and fractures. Dave brought me the local paper with its awful front page - the picture of Sue’s destroyed house with all the stuff about planning violations, gas safety, smoke alarms. And on page three, next to the molten remains of a glass furnace, a fireman’s souvenir... his blackened hands holding a ball of fused multi-coloured marbles.