An absolute treat today: part four of an exclusive short story by Joanna Cannon, author of the hotly anticipated The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. I loved the novel, which I included in my Ones to Read in 2016, and will review it in full next week. The story – ‘The Greatest of These’ gives a real flavour of the novel in terms of introducing some of the main characters, the tone and the themes. If you haven’t seen parts one to three, a list of all the places the story is appearing is below.
Mr Forbes swung his arms about and stamped his feet. ‘I think we should spend a little less time worrying about butterflies, and a little more time clearing this snow. We’ll run out of food.’
‘And television,’ said Mrs Roper.
‘We need more man power.’ Eric Lamb stared at Mr Forbes’ shovel, where it rested in a bank of snow, and then he stared at Thin Brian, and Thin Brian stared at the sky, as though it was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen in his entire life.
‘Don’t look at me,’ said Mr Forbes. ‘My knee’s given me a lot of gyp since I did that sponsored walk for orphaned children.’
‘That was in 1967, Harold,’ said Mrs Roper.
‘Exactly.’ Mr Forbes sniffed the air, and his knees did an awkward bounce, to prove their point. ‘I need to restrict myself to giving directions.’
Mr Forbes gave a lot of directions. Eric Lamb needed to dig a little more to the left, and then a little more to the right. He needed to stack the snow a little higher, then a little lower, and he was too diagonal and then not diagonal enough. Mrs Forbes appeared half way through the directions, with a mug of tea and a selection of Fondant Fancies on a doily, because Mr Forbes said he found giving directions quite taxing. We all stared as the last cake disappeared into Mr Forbes’ mouth, and Eric Lamb grew very red in the face.
We were all so busy, we didn’t see the man straight away.
Eric Lamb’s digging had become very loud and interesting, so Mr Forbes was having to shout, May Roper was explaining religious symbols to no one in particular, and Mrs Forbes was having a conversation with the butterfly, which had landed on the doily and stared up at her from a handful of crumbs.
It was Tilly who noticed him first.
‘Look,’ she said. ‘Someone’s waving to us.’
We all stared at the bottom of The Avenue, where the man stood in snow up to his knees. He wore a brightly coloured scarf and a brightly coloured jacket, and a hat which seemed to wind itself around his head. As we watched, the man lifted his legs out of the drift and started to walk towards us.
Tilly put up her hand to wave back.
‘He’s not from around here.’ Mrs Roper grabbed an edge of the duffel coat and pulled Tilly’s arm back down again. ‘What could he possibly want from us?’
‘We’ll never know if we don’t wave back,’ said Tilly, but the man kept walking anyway, and I watched everyone tighten their lips and their eyes, and Mr Forbes fold his arms around his waist.
And the butterfly left Mrs Forbes’ plate, and it danced around in the air, and we all waited for the man to tell us.
His name was Mr Dhillon and the hat he wore was called a turban. You couldn’t tell where it started from, and Tilly and I walked around him several times to get a proper look, although we were very subtle about it, so I doubt anyone even noticed.
He said he was stuck.
‘It’s my car.’ He pointed across the estate, beyond the snow-packaged roof tops. Except you couldn’t tell where the roof tops ended and the sky began. It was as if they’d been welded together by the weather. ‘It’s on Rowan Tree Croft. In a drift,’ he said. ‘I wondered if you’d help me push it free?’
Mr Forbes did a knee bounce and Thin Brian stared at the sky, and Mrs Forbes made a big fuss of rearranging her doily.
‘Can’t you ask the people on your own street?’ said Mrs Roper, from behind her blanket.
Mr Dhillon said the people on his own street were all elderly. He said there was no one from his own street who could help.
‘We’re all in the same boat,’ he said, and he smiled.
Mr Forbes’ hands found their way around his back, where they linked together and made him look even more stout than before, and even less interested in what anyone else had to say. ‘The thing is,’ he bounced, ‘we have enough on our plate here, without digging other people out of their problems as well.’
‘Then perhaps I could help you in return?’ said Mr Dhillon, and he picked up Mr Forbes’ spade (which was still asleep in the snow), and he started to dig.