An ugly crime has reared its head on tonight’s Parish Council agenda, and with the resident village bobby a thing of the past, the councillors feel obliged to take the first step towards solving it themselves.
Years ago, when the village had a reputation as a rough and risky place, it boasted its own police force. In those days the population was much smaller, before any of the modern housing was added, but there were six pubs instead of the current two, which may explain the wilder behaviour.
Despite local outcry, the old police house was sold off, making it clear that those days were over. Although the village is still covered by the police station from Chipping Sodbury, six miles away, no-one covers the local beat on foot any more. The closest the current occupant of the old police house comes to dealing with crime is to pacify an aggressively friendly dog on her rounds as the village postlady.
Now on to the scene of the crime… From a turning at the western end of the village, a narrow lane drops down from the pond, known as Farm Pool, to the ancient parish church.There are no houses between Farm Pool and the Old Vicarage, and apart from the tarmac surface, this lane has probably changed very little since the church was built.
To one side is the remains of a Cotswold stone quarry, its once-rough edges softened by years of harsh weather gusting up from the Severn Vale. The materials for local houses, and quite probably some of the church as well, were once concealed within this hillside, building stones having been chiseled out as the need arose. To the other side of the lane, fields occasionally dotted with sheep ascend to a high ridge that forms part of the Cotswold Way.
Fringing both banks of the lane are dense, dark hedgerows, a useful source of wild flowers for decorating church or cottage. In late summer these provide a welcome source of blackberries to refresh thirsty Cotswold Way walkers or passers-by on their way to or from church. On a small shady spot, within these tangled hedgerows, is the scene of the crime.
The nature of the crime? Some months ago, a cardboard milk carton appeared. Most locals don’t mind picking up the odd piece of litter and dropping it in the next domestic dustbin that they pass. Accordingly it was plucked like a freshly-sprung mushroom by a London barrister who commutes to London in his Porsche from the manor at the foot of the hill. But next morning, a new one appeared, in precisely the same spot, nestling among the undergrowth.
At first, this socially-minded barrister kept his shocking find a secret. At first, he did not begrudge briefly stopping and hill-starting in order to remove this blight on the rural scene. After all, it was only a harmless milk carton, less threatening, somehow, than say an empty lager can or used hypodermic syringe.
Yet after a while, he begins to feel rather used. And he starts to wonder. Who is leaving this carton here? Why do they choose this particular place? What is their mode of transport that cannot bear the weight of this light cardboard carton to their final destination? And how can they be so disrespectful of the village as to simply leave it here with loutish unconcern?
Is the perpetrator hiding nearby as the barrister stopped each morning, watching, testing to see just how far he can be pushed? Is this to be the start of something big – will he slowly move up through two-pint cartons, gallons, crates?
Might the culprit be a former courtroom adversary, bent on revenge on the man who put him behind bars?
What’s more, where does the carton originate? Our village is still blessed with a real milkman, dispensing his wares in old-fashioned glass bottles. Intruders were suspected.
As the mystery becomes more complex, our lone ranger decides he needs reinforcements, so he escalates the problem to the Parish Council, of which he is an elected member.
To their assembled wisdom he proposes a plan. Apart from the delivery man, the only other local purveyor of milk is the village shop. Here, amongst a wide range of traditional goods sold loose, including the produce of local farms and gardens, the milk is retailed in conspicuously urban cardboard cartons.
The shopkeeper is enlisted for the cause. He agrees to mark his milk cartons. He puts a subtle biro cross on the base of each one, where no-one might be expected to spot it. If a carton bearing his secret code reappears on the scene of the crime, the game will be afoot.
The Parish Council is perturbed. It does not wish to incriminate the shopkeeper. With just one shop still trading in the village where there used to be half a dozen, it is loathe to alienate the trade.
The barrister uses his legal skills to assuage the Parish Council’s concern. The shopkeeper does not the accused. Rather, it is the Watson to their Holmes, a plain-clothes detective collaborating with the public aims of the Council.
He then proposes stage two: if the black cross turns up on the next day’s discarded carton, the shopkeeper will record all of those who buy a carton of milk. He will include both villagers and strangers: none are immune from justice.
The trap is set, and they wait for it to spring. What should be the punishment? They think it should fit the crime.
FOOTNOTE: To this day, this case remains an unsolved!