- Serialisation of The Station Road Sewing Circle by Lou Lewis (with permission)
I brought the official gathering of the Station Road Sewing Circle to a close. I could sense a distinct air of anticipation flowing into St Michael’s church hall, where my weekly meeting took place with twelve other ladies. Each of us in turn had publicly declared our dedicated interest in knitting, needlework and all things stitched. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I carried my tally, Bessie the Law, with considerable pride due to my husband Sergeant Evans being the town’s sole policeman. I was unanimously appointed to the chair of our exclusive sewing club, which is intent on keeping the people of Pembroke safe in their beds, flowers in every window box and the streets clear of litter. It was no small measure that our town had earned the Welcome to West Wales award for the last three years.
Two aspects of our work, conducted in secret mind you, ensured that our neighbourly mission was achieved. The thirteen of us were all well informed and as with any covert service we had the best intelligence network ably supported by many other women of the town going about their daily collection of other people’s business. Gossip on doorsteps, overheard news on the bus and waiting in queues at the shops were our main sources of information. Not much went on in Pembroke that escaped us! The other reason for our continued influence on the well-being of the town was that our respective husbands had no inkling at all that most of our Circle’s efforts were conducted through them after we had sown the ideas into their heads. We were more of a sowing than a stitching club you see.
I stood up and tugged at my now snug but still fashionable two-piece suit. “My husband Sergeant Evans was conducting his first patrol of the day, which you early birds will know, he completes before breakfast every morning. He came upon a sight which would indeed not be pleasant to our eyes and would certainly cause consternation within the ranks of the Welcome to West Wales judges.”
I noticed Joan the Tip lean towards her neighbour in the circle and mumble. “Not another litter pick I hope, I have enough to do with four children leaving a trail of destruction at home.”
“Not quite,” I responded in my official voice. “I’m glad that you’ve spoken up girl because the matter will have to be dealt with through your husband who drives the dustbin lorry.”
Joan was quick to defend her husband’s reputation for street cleaning. “You can’t help having the odd bit of spillage, not to mention the foxes who come down at night from St Daniel’s hill.”
I simply nodded; I needed Joan’s cooperation to nip this blight on our town in the bud.
“You’re absolutely right Joan if we were talking about a few scraps of paper that the bin-boys had dropped, but this is a wholesale mess. All the way up the Lower Lamphey road was strewn with rubbish, ashes in newspapers, empty food tins, cereal packets and leftovers, not the work of foxes I’d say, considering that all the bins were upright and still half full.”
Joan acceded. “Truth be told, it’s never been more than a few bins turned over by the town’s naughty boys. I’ll find out what my husband has got to say about it all and will report back when we meet in Brown’s café during the week.”
I was about to close my needlework box to confirm that the most important part of our gathering was complete when Beryl the Will piped up. She didn’t speak often. She was married to the town clerk, a solicitor who it seemed had trained her in the art of saying less to achieve more. She said he had constantly reminded her that the fewer words he had included in any will he had drawn up, had usually ensured that a family row didn’t take place. Well, at least not at the reading.
“What happened to the pieces of paper that weren’t wrapped around ashes?” Beryl’s accent still linked her to her Swansea beginnings, even though she and her husband had moved west to take up their rural practice some seventeen years ago.
“Good point Beryl!” agreed Joan the Tip. “I’ll add that into my little chat with my husband tonight.”
It was plain to me that our work was done at this meeting, I locked up after everyone had left and went home, up the side of the Wesleyan church towards the Police station.
Brown’s café was packed. It was the favourite haunt of shoppers who staggered in having stripped the shelves of the Melias grocery shop opposite, emptied Smith the butcher’s window and claimed their full family allowance from the post office next door. The latter was requested in small coinage mind you, most of them lived in a pay through the meter world. I had invited Beryl to join me and Joan to examine the mounting mystery of the wayward rubbish at the Station Road end of town.
Beryl had the shortest distance to travel to the café. She and her husband lived nearby in one of the bigger terraced houses on the Chained Back as it was known. A spiked chain ran along the edge of their elevated road to afford the visitors and tradesmen protection from the drop on to the Main Street. Barry the Post told everyone he was not convinced; he was often quoted to have said that he had been injured more times by the chain than the bites he had received from the few deranged dogs on his round.
Beryl stepped in front of me. She was able to gain three places immediately by asking out loud, in her broadest Swansea accent,
“Has Sergeant Evan’s wife arrived yet?”
The row of bench seats nearest the door were vacated at high speed. The more observant patrons amongst the customers might have noticed that the seats had been occupied by travelling salesmen and their accompanying over-zealous debt collectors who constantly plagued the more austere doorsteps in the town. Not to mention their preference to be seated near the door to escape any physical assaults which might accompany a formal complaint about the shoddy toys delivered at the Christmas just past. Unnecessary really, because most of the children knew that if a toy had ‘Made in Hong Kong’ stamped underneath it, then any car with more than one wheel remaining after an hour of robust play was indeed a bargain.
I waited until the waitress had cleared away the debris of chocolate wrappers, crisp packets and half-finished mugs of tea left on the table. When our order for three teas, in proper cups mind you and an ice-cream sundae with two additional saucers complete with spoons had been accurately relayed, I asked Joan to share her findings.
“My husband was spitting feathers all the way through his tea.” She dabbed her lips gently with her paper napkin. I could only imagine the spectacle of a mouthful of feathers and a corned beef pie flashing before her!
Joan pressed on. “It was the third time in as many weeks that he and the dustbin boys had found a whole street in a shambles. They had to clear it all up as well as completing their round. They finished late but their tightwad of a manager refused to pay them overtime. He said that they must have been rushing the collection to get home before the rain had set in. My husband said that the reason that the Sergeant had seen the most recent mess was because the Lamphey road collection wasn’t due until the afternoon. The others, a street at the top of the Green estate and another in Orange Gardens had been cleared up before the Sergeant had arrived.”
I wanted a few answers. “Did you find out about any notepapers or letters being tipped out?”
Joan tilted her head. “I did get round to that but he told me that the funny thing was that they didn’t find any paper of that kind in the bins or on the ground.”
Beryl the Will looked worried. “I was afraid of that, this isn’t young boys playing about. The culprits could be looking for details about each household, their private business you see. My husband insists on burning all our bills and out-of-date receipts on a bonfire in the garden.”
Joan swallowed a large spoonful of vanilla ice-cream giving herself a short brain freeze. She blinked furiously and shuddered. Her voice croaked. “Not everyone in Pembroke has the luxury of a garden but why would the bin raiders only take the paper with them?” She swallowed, then added in her normal voice. “Not that I would complain if they took the back page of the Western Telegraph which delights in reporting the lower position of the Pembroke rugby team in the second division. Gives my husband a headache it does.”
I’d heard enough. I turned to Beryl. “Sergeant Evans.” I paused as is my way, I liked to award my husband his full rank regularly, “carried out a few enquiries at my suggestion at the houses near to the scene of the alleged crime, even though he said that he hadn’t sent many people up to Swansea prison for stealing rubbish!” I ran my spoon around the glass sundae dish to capture the last of the raspberry sauce and licked the spoon clean taking my time.
“It seems that the paper items in the bins weren’t stolen after all. Most of the householders found them stuffed in the hedges or behind their front garden walls.”
Joan looked relieved. “That explains why the Bin boys couldn’t find any. Now it’s no longer a crime scene, as they say on the Dick Barton radio serial, it looks like it’s the naughty boys again.”
Beryl the Will liked to flick her naturally blonde hair from her shoulders,
“I’m still not convinced that it’s children. If they go out any evening to cause trouble, it’s usually in their own backyard so to speak. Not to mention that most houses put their bin out last thing at night. This is a deliberate pattern moving up through the town. Wouldn’t surprise me if they do come back. I bet if they do, they’ll follow the same pattern. Most likely the next rubbish raid will be on another street on the Green estate.”
I was thinking as I carefully stacked the empty cups and saucers into the middle of the table, upholding my firm belief that any place I visited had to be left tidier than I had found it. Standards you know. I took Beryl’s proposal further, by asking Joan. “Which streets did they attack on the Green estate and in Orange Gardens?”
“Thought you might ask me that, my husband said it was Woodbine Terrace and South Street.”
I flicked an imaginary crumb from my pleated skirt. “It’s making a bit of sense now. They are, if I’m not mistaken, the longest roads in that part of the town. Our litter vandals wouldn’t be able to pick out the paper in the dark so they are intending to empty as many bins as they can in the short time between first light and when the dustbin lorry arrives.”
Joan held her forehead. “Taking this all in then”, she paused as she thought things through. “If they do go back to the Green estate next week, it’s likely that the next longest street being St Anne’s Crescent will be on their list. Considering the length of the bin raiders working day, we’d need to be up early to catch them red-handed.”
Beryl came back into the deliberation. “Florrie the Fire, one of our members you know who has openly admitted that she has a thing about the Fire Station Chief, even though he’s a confirmed bachelor and all, recently did a house exchange over to the Green estate to be nearer to her family. She might know someone in St Anne’s Crescent who could keep watch for us.”
I wasn’t too happy letting our mission rest on the fortunes of Florrie’s romantic pursuits. Everyone knew that the real reason she moved over to the Green estate was to be close to the home of her long-time heart’s desire. It had been reported within the Sewing Circle that on his last two call-outs the hapless fireman had been followed all the way to Pembroke Dock fire station by a well-wrapped up and mysterious figure on her Rudge bicycle.
I picked up my handbag so that my friends would know that this sub-meeting of the Station Road Sewing Circle was coming to a close. “Best if we pick up the trail with Florrie then, at our full Circle meeting next week,” I announced. “Time is running out in our quest to keep the streets of our town clean and tidy.”
I have to be fair, the members of the sewing circle paid full attention to Myvvi the Dead’s demonstration of applique embroidery. Even her choice of a shroud as the garment to be decorated didn’t divert them from their attempts to follow her basic instructions. She deftly showed them how to emblazon a large red dragon where the wearer’s national identity would be proudly displayed. The round of applause given by her sister members kindly glossed over the fact that most of Myfanwy’s husband’s late departed clients would have come from the Pembroke surroundings. Him being the town undertaker and all, his patron’s national origins would never have been in doubt. But as Carol from Chapel pointed out, Saint Peter at his pearly gates might not have the details of every person’s home country printed on his selective list of those to be given a clear entry to paradise.
I was on my feet before Myvvi had packed away the last of her garments best suited for travelling to the afterlife. I outlined the progress made on solving the mystery of why the town was being subjected to the litter attacks.
I explained. “We, the investigation team, are of the opinion that they will strike again probably over in the Green estate. I would invite Florrie as a now established resident of that part of town, family ties are important as you all know.” I paused to allow my observation to initiate the flicker of eyelids accompanied by soft coughs around the circle, “to join Joan, Beryl and me after this meeting has closed.”
The remaining nine members of the circle understood to a girl, the urgency of the matter in hand. They rose, put their chairs up against the wall and had reached the door before I had put my hands on the lid of my sewing box, the official symbol of meeting closure.
Florrie couldn’t wait. “I now live in Green Meadow Avenue but my mother and father have lived in St Anne’s Crescent for years, she’ll be more than happy to keep watch.
I wanted to be clear. “All we want to know is who is doing this, then we can find out why ruining our chances with the Welcome to West Wales judges is so important to them.”
Joan chipped in. “Best in my book would be if they didn’t know we were on to them. Remember when we used to go door knocking as girls?”
Florrie giggled. “They never saw the thread we had tied to the knocker because it was flat against the opened door.”
Joan picked up the point. “Such fun and all the better that we annoyed the neighbours who had been nasty to us! Let’s tie a thread between the dustbin lid and your mother’s door knocker, muffled of course. As they lift the lid to find the paper they’ll raise the alarm, your mother could look out of an upstairs’ window to see them and they will be none the wiser.”
Beryl asked. “Could I suggest one more addition to your excellent plan?”
She put her hand on Florrie’s arm. “I wonder if you could pop over to your Mum’s during the evening and make a list of the papers she is throwing out, I still can’t see the sense of pulling paper out from the bins and leaving it behind the wall.”
The four detectives couldn’t wait for Bin-day to arrive.
Our twelve faces sat around the tables in St Michael’s church hall could be described as downright sad all the way up to highly annoyed. I had just announced that my reliable sources, mainly mothers taking the younger children to school, had confirmed that the rubbish collection at St Anne’s Crescent had gone smoothly. There hadn’t been a single scrap of evidence to be seen outside of the bins or indeed the dustbin lorry. Our paper trail, so to speak, had come to an abrupt end.
Beryl, I could sense, was intent on waiting for answers, she suggested. “I say we give it another week and stick to our plan. We have a few months to when the Welcome to West Wales judges might come. It’s best we only make our next move with the full story in front of us.”
Joan, who plainly supported her friend’s conspiracy theory said. “I agree with Beryl, if they are coming back, it’ll be in the Green Estate, we will just have to cast our net further, instead of our stitches so to speak, and wait.” Her attempt to raise spirits gained little response.
I was about to invite Carol from Chapel to start her talk on the role of crochet work in holy decorations when the door crashed open and a red-headed whirlwind rushed in the door waving a piece of paper vigorously at all sitting around the table. They watched with open mouths as Florrie the Fire came over to me and dropped the piece of paper on to the table.
“Sorry for getting here late,” she gasped. “there was a call-out to a bungalow on the Cosheston road, false alarm really – her chip pan had gone up in smoke, they never even got the chance to roll out their hoses!” She paused, realising that her whole purpose in life had been poured out in front of the entire gathering.
I had looked at the evidence in front of me. “Florrie, calm down girl, we understand why you’re a bit excited but what has a list with a circle around the entry – ‘Paid bill from Mrs Hayes corner shop’ got to do with anything?”
Florrie sat down in her usual seat and having gained back some of her breath, continued. “As we had agreed, I went over to my mother’s place in St Anne’s Crescent, wrote a list of all the paper in her dustbin, put it out and tied the thread from the front door knocker to the bin lid. When I got home, I was about to put my own dustbin out when I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to set up my own trap as I remembered that the bin lorry came around to my street - Green Meadow Avenue as they worked their way down the estate. Now there’s good news and bad, the litterers indeed came to my road this morning, the knocker woke me up and I rushed to the bedroom window.” She paused, as is the custom when delivering astounding news. “I saw the McCarthy twins rifling my bin, I should have said that my house is the first in the street. The not so good news is that as they were about to move on up the street one of them glanced up and saw me at the window, they ran off.”
The entire room was enthralled.
Carol from Chapel said. “Well done girl, those twin boys are responsible for most of the petty theft in the town. They’re at it again.”
Joan the Tip was still intent on cheering us up. “What a sight girl! Seeing you in your bright red nightie at the window, that would’ve scared anyone off!”
Everyone laughed but I quickly brought things back to the matter in hand,
“That is simply brilliant Florrie, well done girl! You haven’t finished yet have you?” I picked up the list, and jabbed the circled entry. Florrie grinned broadly. “They shuffled through my papers and one of them stuffed something in their pocket. However as expected, they put the rest behind my front wall. When I checked my list indoors, the only thing they took with them was my weekly bill from Hayes’ shop.”
Everyone present knew that the corner shops around town allowed credit through the week on the mutual understanding that all bills were settled on pay-day. Customers never for a moment thought about checking the listed purchases and shop-owners never felt the need to charge interest due to the loyalty afforded them by their captive customers.
I summarised. “We now know who has been emptying our bins but we don’t know the why? Best if I mention to the Sergeant at tea that one of us saw the twins lurking around the bins in Green Meadow Avenue. Perhaps a doorstep chat with their mother Cynthia might bring this matter to a close. We can then start to enjoy our sewing and knitting and look forward to greeting the Welcome to West Wales judges whenever they turn up.”
Beryl didn’t seem to be so sure. “Cynthia bless her, is a widow. My husband the solicitor, had to help her with a few county court orders barely a month before the late Mr McCarthy fell overboard from the Kathleen and May schooner tied up at the town quay. The coroner decided that it was an accidental death and not related to the official lock-in which had just finished in the adjacent public house. She has no control over her boys who I think are more unruly than bad. All their antics have been aimed at getting some money into her purse. I’d like to know the real reason they had for taking paid bills out of the dustbins.”
I nodded. “I agree that we shouldn’t put Cynthia through any more than she’s got on her plate, I’ll suggest that my husband invites the boys to a friendly chat at the station. It’ll be interesting to see what comes out after they’ve spent five minutes in a cell.”
Joan, Beryl and Florrie were sat back, bathing in their anticipated glory for bringing the mystery of the rifled dustbins to an end.
I called the meeting to order. “We have a very satisfactory outcome to share with you and can say with confidence that Pembroke town will once again be tidy as well as welcoming.”
The stillness in the church hall amplified my explanation,
“Following my gentle suggestion, Police Sergeant Evans conducted a paternal chat, in the absence of their late father, with the McCarthy twins. Their motive it seems was to raise money to give to their mother. A nice man had approached them when they were coming up the Gooses Lane from the park who said that if they could collect a handful of paid bills from the dustbins for him, they would be paid threepence each time. He even told them which streets to visit and when. He also explained that relieving binmen of their rubbish before they took it to the tip was not as far as he knew a crime.”
Beryl was wanting more of our answers to be made public. “Tell us then, who was the nice man and why was he happy to pay good money for shopping bills that had been already paid mind you?” Her broad Swansea accent added urgency to her request.
“I was coming to that! Sergeant Evans is a compassionate officer of the law who persuaded the boys to tell him all about their benefactor. So, it was in the lounge bar of the Lion Hotel that he caught up with the nice man responsible for the twin’s misdemeanours.”
I was starting to sound like I’d had memorised the last few entries in my husband’s note-book. “Through decisive questioning he was able to discern that the man before him was the South Wales sales manager for a company which was conducting a promotion of ex-war department furniture at rock bottom prices. The bargains were only to be made available to deserving customers in Pembroke and the surrounding villages. He said that by analysing the binned bills and knowing what people could afford to eat, his salesmen would only knock-on needy doors. He must have thought that my husband had just arrived in town on one of the six trains a day that come down from Carmarthen.”
From previous such announcements, the entire sewing circle knew that I had added that in to build up my final revelation.
“The sales manager insisted that he only used the bills for market research and that he destroyed them later. My husband pointed out that selling goods to people who can barely pay their way could well destroy the family. It was then that the manager gave his game away, he said that hire purchase was the way of the future and that by stretching out the payments for a modest interest people could afford things they had only dreamed of.
As sharp as one of his notebook’s pencils, the Sergeant replied ‘so that’s where you make your money, they end up paying much more in the long run. I’ll tell you now, you won’t be making another farthing out of the people of Pembroke or you’ll be on a charge of aiding and abetting the pilfering of property belonging to the Municipal tip’. The fellow didn’t even finish his whisky and peppermint, he went straight upstairs and packed.”
I sat down to gentle applause from the Circle, allowing a slight smile on my lips to convey that I didn’t mind that the credit for solving this case would go entirely to my husband. I was more than happy to take any lesser morsel of praise for returning the town once again to being a worthy candidate for our fourth Welcome to West Wales award.
Episode 1 . Serialisation of The Station Road Sowing Circle by Lou Lewis (with permission). Buy the paperback book HERE or SUBSCRIBE for more exciting episodes.