No one could pin down the exact date it had begun. The chubby guy filling up a green Peugeot 206 thought it had started on a Tuesday, two or three weeks back, but he couldn’t be sure.
‘So which is it?’ she asked.
‘Three, nope, maybe four.’ he said, as he stared at her tits.
This story was getting worse by the minute. It had seemed an interesting gig back in the office, but now her head was throbbing in time to the boy racer’s music at pump five, and she couldn’t get the taste of sick out of her mouth, despite the Ginsters Cornish pasty and Cadbury’s Turkish delight. No one was keen to talk and when they did they were evasive or damn right rude. Five years at The Enquirer though had given her a backbone; she wasn’t about to quit now. Delilah Abatelli pulled down the sun visor to expose the mirror and check her face. She rubbed a few stray blobs of mascara from under her left eye, brushed a fallen eyelash off her right cheek then stared into her own dark brown eyes. Snap! In one fluid move, Delilah whipped the sun visor back with her left hand as she turned the key in the ignition with her right.
‘Time to write a fucking story,’ she said to herself as she released the handbrake, seesawed her feet on the pedals, and pulled away.
‘If you could tell me, Mrs–’
‘Esther. Just Esther.’ The old woman had stopped grooming her dog and was looking up at Delilah who was still stood by the tiny front door of the cottage.
‘I said sit down, didn’t I?’
‘Right, sure. Sorry.’
Delilah didn’t know why she’d said she was sorry, she wasn’t. Truth was the squat figure sat by the blazing fire made her insides squirm.
‘If you could tell me, Esther,’ Delilah began as she picked her way across the dog hair laden carpet. ‘When you first noticed that something strange was happening in the village?’
Delilah sat down in the chair opposite Esther just as the old woman snorted.
‘Is that a joke, my dear?’ said Esther as her right hand moved in long graceful motions over the Afghan’s silky hair.
Delilah hated being made to feel stupid by someone older than her, it made her feel like she was 11-years-old and being told off by her grandmother for sneaking a biscuit out of the jar.
‘You could hardly call this village normal at the best of times, but lately, yes, I suppose it has been a tad more–’ she looked up from the dog to peer at Delilah, ‘eccentric.’
‘In what way exactly?’
Esther pounced on Delilah’s eagerness, ‘Oh, De-li-lah. You’re so disappointing.’
Delilah cringed at the sound of her elongated name on Esther’s tongue.
‘Surely you read your own newspaper?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘So you already know the facts.’
Delilah was reluctant to concede, ‘Yes.’
‘What you really want to know– is why?’
‘Doesn’t everybody? It’s a mystery.’
Esther put the dog brush down on the small folding table beside her straight back chair.
‘There you are, my darling, all done. You’ve been a good girl, haven’t you, Molly?’
Esther cooed over the Afghan like a baby. Delilah’s face contorted into an expression of disgust as she watched Esther invite the dog to lick her face. Delilah averted her head as she tried to appear intrigued by the many photographs dotted about the living room. Most featured Esther in sombre attire, looking stern while surrounded by an assortment of exotically dressed people. Exotically dressed happy people. Meanwhile, Delilah concentrated all her efforts into trying to stop the petrol station pasty from making its way back up her throat.
‘There’s no mystery to it, Delilah,’ Esther broke off from the dog, her eyes bored into the journalist. ‘One morning, half the women in this village decided to dress head to toe in black. The next morning, so did the other half.’
‘So it was coordinated? Someone planned all of this?
‘I wouldn’t have put it quite like that.’
The Afghan let out a yelp as it yawned.
‘What do you think happened? Who’s behind it? And why here?’
Esther sat back in her chair, picked off a few stray dog hairs from her black dress and studied Delilah’s silky olive skin.
‘You’re very keen, aren’t you? Is there someone you’re trying to impress at that paper of yours?’
‘I’m just trying to do my job. People want to know what’s happening in Morton.’
‘Well of course they do. They’re afraid it will happen to them. And why shouldn’t it?’
Delilah had edged to the front of her chair. ‘You think this phenomenon is going to spread?’
Esther revelled in the rapt attention she was commanding from Delilah. The kind of attention that nowadays she only received from her dog Molly.
‘Oh, yes, I’m sure it will.’
‘Why so certain.’
‘Because, my dear, you’re going to write a story about it.’
The wind rushed over Delilah’s ears making them tingle, but after the oppressive heat of Esther Hoggart’s cottage, she was glad of the fresh air on her face and in her lungs. The village of Morton appeared like most others: shop, pub, post office, cricket green, but the further Delilah walked into the village, the stranger it became. She didn’t even notice the women at first. After all, a woman dressed head to toe in black wouldn’t inspire more than a cursory glance, let alone a wolf whistle from a builder. But when groups of two, three, four women all dressed in black passed by the post office, before bumping into other groups of women also dressed in black outside the bakery, the small Hampshire village of Morton started to take on a different air. It just so happened that Delilah’s walk coincided with the afternoon school run. The tiny lanes were rammed with black clad women all headed in the same direction. But unlike the school run in Delilah’s neighbourhood, this one was much quieter. Gone was the regular click and scrape of mothers’ high-heeled shoes as they pounded the pavement on the way to pick up their children. Now muffled trainers had replaced the regular din of expensive shoes as they collided with asphalt. Delilah tagged behind a group of mothers engrossed in an animated conversation.
‘Marcus is still really pissed about it. Says he thinks it’s just plain childish now.’
‘Childish? Says the man who sulked for two days when Ben broke his Xbox controller!’
‘I know! Even though these jeans are doing nothing for my arse, part of me wants to keep going with the black campaign just to fuck him off!’
It occurred to Delilah that in a crowd of women who wore only black, everything about her screamed intruder, from her white shirt and grey pencil skirt, to the red kitten heels she had picked up half price in H&M’s New Year’s sale. In an exaggerated fashion, Delilah stopped by a brick walled garden encased in ivy and pretended to rummage in her handbag until the group of women had moved off down the lane. Just as Delilah had turned in the direction of Esther Hoggart’s cottage on the edge of the village, she heard her name being called. Not having visited Morton before, she assumed the person calling out must be referring to someone else. Delilah grabbed her maroon handbag, swung it over her shoulder and headed off along the cottage lined lane. She had taken no more than three steps before a familiar face emerged from within a crowd of women dressed in black.
‘Delilah! My God, it is you!’
The woman was tall and blonde. Black jeans clung to every inch of her long, slim legs that tapered into a pair of Gucci black flats, while her top half was squished into a tight black top, which accentuated her pricey boobs.
‘Jessica?’ Delilah asked herself as much as the blonde.
This was the second time today Delilah had heard her name deformed on the tongue of a virtual stranger.
Delilah tried to adopt a tone somewhere in between happiness and sheer hatred.
‘Oh, it’s Fairchild-Linley now!’ Jessica waved a huge diamond ring encrusted hand in front of Delilah’s face.
‘Jesus Christ! That thing’s a rock.’
‘That’s my Graham for you. I told him I’d be perfectly happy with a ring made out of tin foil.’
‘Really?’ Delilah doubted the truth of Jessica’s statement.
‘Oh, yes, but Graham insisted that I must have a diamond. Said that if he wanted to marry a chav then he would have gone to the fun fair!’
The small group of women Jessica appeared from was stood round her. They looked like the blandest cheer leading squad ever. They giggled ever time Jessica spoke, regardless of whether what she said was funny or not.
‘So what brings you here? You haven’t moved to the village, have you?’ said Jessica with a tone of incredulity.
‘No. I’m here on business. I’m a’ – realising her mistake too late – ‘Journalist.’
Jessica’s eyes lit up like a fruit machine. ‘You must be here for the black campaign!’
‘The black campaign?’
‘Oh, it’s what we’ve unofficially called ourselves. Kind of a nick name.’
‘Well, you’ve come to the right place’ – Jessica placed her left hand on her fake chest – ‘I can give you the inside scoop.’
‘Really?’ Perhaps Jessica had her uses after all.
Jessica grabbed Delilah’s limp left arm and interlocked it with her own determined right arm. ‘Come on, let’s grab a coffee.’
‘Oh, I really have to–’
Delilah’s protests were batted away by the woman who was accustomed to getting what she wanted.
The bell on the door let out a shrill tinkle as its peaceful home was disturbed. Once across the threshold of the teashop, Jessica released her boa like grip on Delilah’s arm and bellowed at the harassed, dumpy, orange haired woman behind the counter.
‘Marilyn! You’ll never guess what’s just happened.’
Not pausing for a response, Jessica launched into a lavish account of her meeting with Delilah, rapping her fake black nails on the counter for extra emphasis. Marilyn didn’t share Jessica’s enthusiasm for Delilah. She cast a quizzical eye over the journalist’s humdrum attire before turning back to Jessica who was still in full flow. Slow and deliberate, Marilyn let out a weary groan. Jessica caught the hint and hurried to a conclusion.
‘She’s a journalist!’
Marilyn’s face performed an abrupt reversal.
‘Journalist!’ Throwing her arms in the air in shocked delight.
The three syllables reverberated off the walls of the bustling teashop, stopping its occupants in their conversations. The dull hum of the industrial fridge and the muffled bubble of the tea urn prevailed while Delilah caught a knowing glance between Jessica and Marilyn. A glance Marilyn was quick to disguise.
Since her introduction to the flame haired Marilyn, Delilah had been fighting the urge not to stare at her tangerine hair.
‘Of course she’ll have tea. You can bring it over can’t you, Marah?’
Jessica grabbed Delilah’s arm and marched her over to a small pink robed table against the back wall of the shop.
‘Oh, and some of that ginger cake too’ – Jessica called out over her shoulder before learning in to Delilah’s ear and whispering – ‘It’s simply divine, but don’t tell her that.’
The feel of the virtual stranger’s breath on Delilah’s ear lobe sent a ripple of revulsion that shot down her body and wedged itself in her big toe.
Once seated, Delilah got her first proper look at the stunning vista of Marilyn’s teashop. It was like an explosion in a nineteenth-century doily factory: an embroidered hell of flowery curtains, baby pink table cloths, soft wicker placemats, grubby Hay Wain prints on the wall, while a dusty plastic gerbera in a variety of garish colours sat contemplating suicide on the edge of each one of the fussy tables. Marilyn threw cake and cutlery onto a tray, the cups clanking in distress, protesting their abrupt eviction from the top of the espresso machine. Delilah watched Marilyn’s every move with intrigue, or rather she watched Marilyn’s hair with intrigue.
‘Is that deliberate?’
‘Sorry?’ Jessica followed the direction of Delilah’s gaze back to the counter they had just left.
‘Oh, that thing on her head?’
‘Unfortunately, I think it is.’
‘It’s so– orange.’
‘I think she was aiming for auburn, but it came out like a clementine instead.’
‘Has no one told her?’
‘So you just let her walk around like that?’
‘She doesn’t seem to mind. But, I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t give us a good giggle.’
Jessica’s loud laugh erupted into an unintentional snort, which she swiftly concealed.
‘You’re not married then?’ she pointed to Delilah’s bare ring finger.
‘Oh, well never mind. I’m sure it’ll happen one day.’
Jessica sounded like a mother trying to console a bawling child in the middle of a Tesco biscuit aisle.
‘I don’t mind,’ said Delilah in a perfunctory manner.
Incomprehension flashed across Jessica’s face, ‘You don’t mind?’
‘Finding a husband has never really been a priority of mine.’
Delilah had never intended to challenge the fabric of Jessica’s existence, but now here she was inadvertently tugging the uptight woman’s world apart at the steams.
‘But what about having children?’
‘Well, it either happens or it doesn’t.’
‘But who’s going to look after you when you’re’ – the mere thought of the word terrified Jessica – ‘old?’
Delilah was relieved from the burden of answering by the tinkling of cups that signalled Marilyn’s arrival to the table. She plonked down the tea and cake laden tray, scraped a chair across the floor from a nearby table and eased herself down onto it with the grace of a forklift truck driver setting down a pallet of light bulbs.
‘So which paper do you work for again?’ said Marilyn, wasting no time.
‘Not a national?’
‘No.’ said Delilah in a well-rehearsed neutral tone that she hoped didn’t betray her true feelings.
Marilyn dished out the cups and began pouring the tea.
‘It’s probably for the best. The nationals are a cutthroat world. My uncle worked for the The Times in the 60s, nearly drove him off a cliff, literally. They found him in his car at Beachy Head with a bottle of pills in one hand and a shotgun in the other. He always was a little on the am-dram side.’
‘Maybe he just wanted to make sure.’
Delilah hadn’t intended this to be a joke, but Marilyn threw her head back and roared with laughter, spilling her tea onto the hideous tablecloth.
Regaining her composure. ‘The doctors pumped him full of drugs and volts of course, but it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference.’
‘He resisted the treatments?’
‘No. He was hit by a car two weeks later.’
‘Oh that’s– unfortunate.’
Delilah showed a sudden and urgent interest in the china sugar bowl, adding cube after cube of Demerara to her tea as she tried to stop the laughter creeping up her insides from reaching her face. Delilah needn’t have risked type 2 diabetes though, as Marilyn was already rummaging in the front pocket of her red tabard. She pulled out a packet of Silk Cut and a Clipper lighter, sparked a cigarette into life and settled back into her chair, letting a long stream of smoke belch out towards the ‘No Smoking’ sign on the back wall. Marilyn’s small act of rebellion caught Delilah’s attention and brought her focus back to her job.
‘So earlier, you mentioned the “black campaign.” What is that exactly?’
‘We wear black,’ said Jessica, dumbly gesturing to her black shirt. ‘You think we’re wearing this stuff because it’s flattering? Although, these black jeans do make my arse look great. Graham said I have the body of a 15-year-old in them!’
Jessica ran her great talons along her skinny legs as she kicked them out from under the table and then raised them gracefully into the air.
‘This damn t-shirt though’ – she thumped her legs back down to the floor – ‘God it’s repulsive! If this campaign goes on much longer, I think I’m going to have to make some alterations. I’ve not worn a t-shirt since P. E. at primary school, and then it was only under great pro–’
Delilah had to make her stop or she’d be here all day, ‘What I’m getting at really, Jessica, is why? How did all this come about? Who started it?’
Jessica and Marilyn exchanged a curt glance, before both reaching for their teacups. The silence that ensued as they drank seemed to consume more and more of the smoky air as each elongated second passed. Delilah sat with her pen poised over her notepad waiting. Marilyn was the first to put down her cup, but she merely took another long drag on her cigarette. Jessica, her hand forced, rested her teacup on its saucer and took a deep breath. Delilah readied her pen.
‘We– don’t know.’
‘Well, there’s a bit of debate.’
‘What she means is that she’d like to take the credit only she knows I’ll call her a bullshitting, bare-faced, cock-hungry liar if she does.’
Delilah had never known her opinion of someone to change so instantaneously, perhaps it was the phrase ‘cock-hungry liar’, but she felt a sudden lurch of sympathy towards Marilyn.
‘There’s no need for that kind of language, Marilyn.’
‘You’re just pissed off you got caught in a lie.’
‘It was not a lie!’ – Jessica’s face was bright red – ‘I was merely imagining what the person who came up with the idea for the “black campaign” might have been thinking.’
A smile crept across Marilyn’s face as she twirled a strand of orange hair around her left index finger.
‘Almost like a behind the scenes featurette, like you get on The Pirates of the Caribbean DVD.’
‘I didn’t bring Delilah here so you could run through your comedy routine. This is serious.’
‘Of course it is. Of course it is. I’m sorry. You’re absolutely right. A bunch of middle aged woman in a Hampshire village all spontaneously wearing black is incredibly serious.’
‘You’re not part of the campaign, Marilyn?’
‘Oh she is when she feels like it. Or when she feels like mocking our work.’
‘Work? And what work would that be exactly? Holding a coffee morning, going shopping, skiing in the Alps? Oh yes, that’s all very charitable of you. You’re really keeping the tide of world hunger at bay there, Jessica.’
Jessica displays the air of an embarrassed mother trying to contain her wayward child.
‘Delilah and myself disagree on a few of the fundamentals of the campaign.’
‘Perhaps we could start with something a little easier. When did you and your’ –
Delilah hesitated as she looked towards Marilyn – ‘friends start wearing black exactly?’
Delilah’s pen danced about the notepad, eager to get going. Delilah thought this was a straightforward question that would elicit, at best, a three or four word answer, but even this simple question was proving tricky as Jessica and Marilyn disagreed over this too.
‘It was two Wednesdays ago, you must remember?’ – Jessica looked aghast that Marilyn could even be questioning her – ‘It was after the WI talk with the police firearms team, remember?’
‘Yes I remember, but it was before then because that police man, the one you fancied and said looked like George Clooney in his ER days, only with a less wobbly head, made that comment about us being difficult targets to hit because we were all wearing black, remember?’
Jessica’s face fell, ‘Oh, yes. I do remember that now. And I didn’t fancy him by the way.’
‘Oh, I think you did!’
‘I did not. Just because I compare a man to George Clooney doesn’t me I want to sleep with him.’
‘Who mentioned anything about sex?’
Marilyn was delighted to have caught Jessica out. As the pair settled into their well-worn banter, Delilah set her notepad and pen on the table, picked up a fork and began shovelling ginger cake into her mouth. It was the only thing to finally rid her palette of the taste of sick.
Delilah emerged from the teashop in the centre of the village three gruelling hours later. She couldn’t have learned more about Jessica Fairchild-Linley than if she’d accompanied her on one of her frequent coffee enema outings. Although her belly was uncomfortable from the copious cake and coffee, Delilah trudged out of the village with renewed vigour.
Esther Hoggart was not surprised to see the journalist at her door again. She’d been waiting for her ever since she’d left.
‘It was you, wasn’t it, Esther? You started it all.’ Delilah said with a smile as she sat back on the armchair by the fire.
‘Some people are just so – predictable.’ Esther returned Delilah’s smile as she sat down opposite.
‘Especially Jessica Fairchild-Linley.’
‘Oh!’ she adopted a spot-on impression of Jessica. ‘Especially Jessica Fairchild-Linley.’
‘Brilliant. Simply brilliant.’
‘What gave me away?’
‘The photographs.’ she gestured to the pictures hanging on the walls of the living room. ‘I didn’t realise at first, but sitting in that damn teashop listening to Jessica harp on about how black is such a slimming colour–’
Esther let out a loud snort, which awoke the sleeping Afghan hound between the women’s feet.
‘Oh, she is such an insufferable bore.’
‘It suddenly occurred to me that in every photograph you’re wearing black. Just like you’re wearing black now.’
‘I think this calls for a drink.’
Esther shuffled over to an antique oak table in the corner of the room, retrieved a bottle of whiskey and two glasses, then returned to the fire. She poured the whiskey and handed Delilah a glass.
‘To the end of the road.’ Esther said as she raised her glass.
‘Oh no, it’s not the end, Esther. I’ve still got a story to write. To the beginning.’
The two women smiled as their glasses clinked together.