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Open Features: Bitter Rivalry

Derek McQueen tells a horticultural tale with a gruesome concclusion.

Eric Walmsley was overweight for a gardener. From a child, he had always had a fat face. The other kids tormented him about it at Broughton Secondary. Fatty Wammy they called him. Now married with three children, Eric Walmsley was happy at last. Well, fairly happy. There was one dark secret.

The Walmsley family lived in Delton, a small village of 350 houses, east of the railway, near Ashington, Northumberland. They had lived in Fox Lane for nearly twenty years. The terrace house had a very long garden, backing on to farm fields. The smell from pigs, cow dung and manure, hung over the village like a pall of deleterious smoke, but the locals loved it. It made them feel at home.

Eric's garden was his pride and joy. All the fruit and vegetables needed to serve five came from the superbly cultivated plot. Two years ago Eric installed greenhouse size polythene tunnels and they now had surplus produce to sell. The quality was superb. Installing heaters had given Eric a much longer season. Cherry tomatoes and strawberries were in great demand.

Belton was divided down the middle by the LNER railway line connecting Tyneside with Edinburgh. The locals knew the village as Belton east and Belton west and there was some friendly rivalry between the two. The West thought that they were superior to the East for some reason. The level crossing was on a high speed stretch of the line and potentially very dangerous. There had been many accidents and several deaths in the past twenty years.

Belton had three pubs, remarkable given the size of the place.
John Bird kept the 'Cross and Milkmaid' near the railway on the west side. The Harrow Inn and the Blue Stoops were east of the crossing and both were struggling for business.

David McGuire, a Blue Stoops regular was also an avid gardener with an allotment some distance from his home. His specialties were carrots and broad beans and he regularly won prizes in the Regional Horticultural Society's annual show. At the last AGM David had been voted in as 'Society President'. This year he had decided to add leeks in the 'very special vegetables' category. All David's vegetables had been exceptional and some had been enormous. The 'leeks' class was very popular in that area of Northumberland and some entries had reached gigantic proportions. Incredibly, the first prize was a Caribbean holiday for two and the second prize a cheque for 400.

The third prize was fifty bags of John Innes potting compost, delivered free in the Ashington area. The prizes pulled in gardeners from miles around and being an open competition, anyone could enter. David was hoping against hope that he would win. His wife Jean was desperate for a break after nursing their dog Sammy, a fox terrier cross, through a long illness. She had also struggled to serve neighbours, who regularly trooped to her door to buy vegetables and fruit.

The judging of the Ashington Horticultural Society, 'root vegetables' category was scheduled for the second Friday in September as usual. There were 320 entries. 'Fruit and flowers' categories would be judged on the Saturday. Prizewinning leeks have been enormous in the past, some as round and as long as a man's arm. The rules for showing say they should be arranged in threes, each leek identical to the other two and presented immaculately as a set.

Both Eric Walmsley and David McGuire spent every working hour in the garden using 'special' seeds and exceptional rare compost. Eric even sang to the plants each night, as he put them to bed, determined to win the Caribbean holiday. Gardening had now moved on from a productive pastime to a serious obsession. Eric was aware that David was also producing superb leeks. He had an excellent plot on the railway allotments. It was unthinkable that David should win first prize. Eric decided he must do something about it. He would get a good view of David's plot if he went to the 'Cross and Mermaid'. He planned to go on the Thursday, when it was even quieter than usual.

"Not seen you in here lately Eric," Joe, the landlord said. "I could do wi' more customers like you. Most just have a half and then they're off. Have a pint on me Eric"

"Thanks Joe," Eric said. "That's me for tonight; I'll see you soon."

Eric had a good look at David's allotment as he walked back up the lane. He was shocked at what he saw. The leeks were at least six inches taller than his own. They looked superb even in the poor light. In a moment of total madness he decided what he would do.

*

David McGuire looked down at what had been his specimen leeks. He could have wept. They had been covered with household bleach. The stink was appalling and the show plants were totally ruined.

Eric Walmsley wasn't as clever as he thought. Two late night revellers had left the Blue Stoops after a celebration and saw a man wandering around near the allotments. As they watched, the figure appeared to be pouring the contents of a plastic bottle over the plants.

"I reckon that's Eric Walmsley. What's he doing down at this end anyway," one of the young men said. "Best take a look in the morning, it's too dark now. He was definitely acting a bit strange."

*

Dedicated Show gardeners in this part of Northumberland, who have their produce destroyed or stolen, have an effective way of dealing with miscreants without recourse to bringing in the police. Retribution begins with the thief being given a sound thrashing. After that the offender is barred from pubs, clubs and all community organisations in the area. The pressure this puts on the outlawed vandal is enormous.

*

The 17-50 for Edinburgh left Newcastle railway station a few minutes late. Twenty minutes later, Geoff Williams the newly qualified driver made a frantic call to Ashington Control. 'I've just struck someone, I believe a man, on the Belton level crossing.

Please advise for Gods sake.'


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