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Smallville: A Certain Quality

...Then there was the animal lover on the bicycle, whose two small dogs sat in a box behind him, peering from either side. The dogs wore hats: Easter bonnets, rain hats, sun hats, and at Christmas, hats decorated with tinsel and holly... Peter B Farrell introduces some unusual characters in his smallville world.

"Yaargh!" The threatening snarl startled me, especially coming from an apparently harmless old man. He shook his walking stick, but I pretended not to notice. Having just moved in to our new home and wishing to avoid conflict with the natives, I crossed the road, head down.

I was on my way to the local shop. Returning, I studiously avoided eye contact. Mr Napier turned out to be a local character, agitated and no doubt confused by the influx of "foreigners" in the expanding neighbourhood.

Over the months that followed I realised I had not been singled out. Children, motorists, florists, cyclists, meter readers, truck drivers and postmen; he would stand on the corner and shake his stick at them all.

"I never have any problem with him. Always gives me a smile." My wife had a certain quality, an attraction for eccentrics; a long time after meeting me of course.

Our relationship with Mr Napier remained the same until he disappeared off the street. Rumour had it that with advancing old age and ill health he was in a care home.

Some time later in the shopping precinct, I returned from combat with the bank to find my wife wearing a Russian naval commander’s cap, presiding over a stall devoted to militaria - medals, uniforms, gas-masks, badges - part of an exhibition to raise money for ex-servicemen's charities.

She had been inveigled into helping to set up the stall and asked to model the various headgear. After she had set out the range of uniforms, the stallholder had then departed for some refreshment, leaving her in charge. I remained incognito and blended in with the onlookers.

She managed to fend off awkward questions regarding military campaigns in the Crimea, but came into her own on recalling the rationing during the 2nd World War, until relieved by the stallholder.

"I'll be back before tea." It was a Saturday afternoon and my wife, now a member of the local ladies keep fit club, would be joining in a well-practised routine of mild exercise for the over 50s. This week the club would be performing at the local hospital, doing their bit to encourage the older generation and infirm to become more mobile, with the aid of balls and hoops.

"Put on a good show and don't forget the sweatband." My parting shot was appropriate and I returned to the health advice column. Apparently you can overdose on green tea, with dire consequences - and just when I had upped my intake. I resolved to make a 33% cut and spent the rest of the afternoon at the computer pursuing my ancestors.

"Mm interesting," my great-grandfather was a slave in the 19th century Cotton Mills at the age of fourteen…

"He just burst into tears when he saw me." The keep fit display had been a success but the site of the cantankerous Mr Napier in hospital amid a group of old ladies throwing balls at each other had been a shock.

"Perhaps he prefers just being on his own, reading the paper, watching TV. His generation hadn't got time for keeping fit." I backed by my recent experience of life in the cotton mills against juggling with balls and hoops.

"I may just go and visit him one Sunday." While I'm outside in the car park I mouthed silently.

We were now used to the locals, in particular an animal lover who was rarely without his two small dogs. Generally we passed him on the way to town, we in our small saloon, he on his bicycle. The two dogs always sat in a box behind him, peering from either side, wearing hats; Easter bonnets, rain hats, sun hats and, at Christmas, hats decorated with tinsel and holly.

One Saturday my wife was sitting in the busy shopping precinct - I was in the library - when the animal lover approached, this time on a tricycle. inevitably singling her out. Attached to the trike' was a wire cage containing a budgerigar which was being entertained by music from a portable tape recorder. My wife was asked to look after the budgerigar whilst the owner repaired to the nearby bookmakers, it being Derby day.

Whatever the music was, it served to entertain the passing shoppers, as well as the budgerigar. I returned from the library to find her surrounded by a small group of tourists.

"Where do we put the money?" One passing tourist wanted to know where the collection tin was, perhaps confusing my wife with the lady from Oxfam. I remained safely at a distance until the return of the cyclist, having an aversion to performing animals and circuses.

Later in Mahler's, the local restaurant, custard pies came to mind, but instead I ordered the usual: "Decaf's without milk, teacake without butter and a scone without jam please."

"Well don't leave without paying." One up to our waitress as usual. One of these days…


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