Saturday, 28 April 2012

Lease of life

I’m feeling very integrated this week.

When we first moved here we were a little worried that we might be in for a bit of a “Hot Fuzz” experience after various members of the parish council came to visit us - in the exact order that our neighbours had told us they would arrive, and “casually” mentioned various things close to the heart of the council, planning permission being fairly high on the list - exactly as our neighbours had warned us it would.  To be fair, you can’t blame them for being a little over-cautious about this issue since the first the village knew of the existence of our home was when the original owner knocked down the old house behind which he had been stealthily building the new one, presumably with spectacular disregard of minor issues like the aforementioned planning permission.

Everyone was very welcoming, but we were left with a faint, lingering sense that if we failed to measure up to the village’s high standards, we might well find ourselves entombed under the church with the crusty jugglers and the living statues. 

I had forgotten that everyone loves a lawyer.  Lawyers know everything there is to know about anything.  Lawyers keep you safe.  Lawyers are useful. 

Sometimes they shoot bolts of lightning from their eyes at law-breakers, and they can vaporise the unruly with a sound-wave of words, but they tend to keep that quiet as people will expect that level of service all the time.

Okay.  That last bit wasn’t true.  But lawyers are useful.  There comes a time in the life of any community when someone will have a reason to say “Isn’t whatsername a lawyer?  You know, the one who lives next door to Bob and Joan.  We could ask her.”

I was whatsername and the thorny legal issue in question concerned the grant of a parcel of land by the Duchy of Cornwall to the village for use as a wildlife reserve and recreation area.  The land, heavily overgrown after years of neglect, had already been cleared and a committee had been set up.  We had managed to miss all the working parties and tree-planting days and were starting to get a little embarrassed about our non-participation in something that the whole village seemed to be involved in.  The crypt beneath the church was beckoning once again.  Crusty jugglers, living statues and perfectly able-bodied people who can’t be arsed to plant a tree.

And then the parish council came knocking on the door.  Rumour had it that I was a lawyer.  Was this true?  I confirmed that it was indeed true, wondering if I was about to be served with a summons for the offences of reckless Not Being From Round These Here Parts and Not Getting Involved with intent.  Instead the parish chairman produced a copy of the lease for the land and asked if I would consider checking it over for them.

Now in my defence, I did point out that this was not my area and that I had in fact failed property law the first time round (although I may have omitted to mention that this had the knock-on effect of making me liable to sit a remedial professional ethics exam because allegedly it is not acceptable to act for buyer, lender and last-minute gazumper in a property transaction) but I may have pointed it out in an extremely rapid undertone in between my over-enthusiastic cries of “I’m a lawyer!”, “I can do that because I’m a lawyer!” and “Did I mention I am a lawyer?”  I was going to be useful.

Now obviously this was an Extremely Important Task and needed to be done properly.  So I took it to my office in London and placed it on my desk.  It is a lawyer’s desk in a lawyer’s office where law happens.  Obviously the right place for an Extremely Important Task.  You can’t rush these sort of things so I left it on my desk for a couple of days, occasionally repositioning it, just in case anyone had missed the “Between HRR Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales and Duke of Cornwall and Village Where Anne Lives” on the front page.  I did manage to resist the urge to carry it about on the tube and read it pointedly and flamboyantly at every opportunity, but it was a close thing…

Eventually I completed my Extremely Important Task and at the next tree planting day, I organised the Chaos family into a sort of honour guard and we processed through the village with the lease.  With great ceremony I located the parish chairman and other dignitaries and presented my findings.

I was able to confirm that this was indeed a lease.

That was pretty much it, but they were looking at me expectantly, so I ventured a few slightly more detailed opinions.  For example, the Duchy retained forestry rights over the land, meaning that, in theory, Prince Charles could wander down here whenever the fancy took him and chop down all the nice little trees that were being planted with such care.  This was given careful consideration by the committee but the general consensus was that our future monarch probably had better things to be doing with his time and that if he ever should decide to go all Henry the Eighth on our asses, we would probably have bigger things to worry about.

But everyone seemed happy with my Very Official Findings and a photo was taken for posterity, the chairman and I each holding a side of the lease and beaming at the camera while I did my usual Chicken Run pose.

A couple of nights ago, that photo re-surfaced as part of a slide-show about the progress on the wildlife reserve.  There I was, gurning at the camera with Simon milling about in the crowd behind and Thomas scowling on his bike.  The slide show was played at the Parish AGM with a commentary which used words like “valuable contributions” and “community spirit”.

We were in.  We were officially Useful Members of the Community.

I felt a virtuous little glow as I sat in the AGM.  It only faded a little bit when Ben decided that farting and burping was a valuable contribution to proceedings.  Although to be fair, noisy as he was, he wasn’t the one admonished for unruly behaviour as part of a sniggering, whispering back row, most of whom seemed to share a name, making naming and shaming of the culprits fairly straightforward.

“Annes!  If you don’t mind!”

The proceedings were only a little bit Vicar of Dibley-esque, with the merest hint of Hot Fuzziness, although during the discussion of the not-particularly-nearby travellers’ site a little voice did seem to be whispering in my ear “Crusty jugglers.”

The following day Ben and I attended the funeral of the first person who welcomed us to the village.  Once again, we sat in the back row, but I did not expect the light-heartedness that had been present at the meeting the night before.

Bread of Heaven was sung in about six different keys.  The elderly gentleman beside me joined in the solo, fractionally out of tune and just ever so slightly slower than the soloist who ploughed on bravely.  When the village chairman promised to be brief in his address, a small child in the front row made a noise of assent.  Another elderly man got up in the middle of the service and announced loudly that he had somewhere to be before taking his lengthy and gracious leave.  At one point the vicar was seen holding a leek that she had found on her seat, a look of great puzzlement on her face.  And during the line “And there is a time to be silent” Ben decided to prove that this was not such a time by letting out a full-throated wail.

The consensus was that the deceased would have loved it.  He had lived in the village for forty years.  Forty years, by all accounts, of seeing the funny side.  At the reception after the service, Ben was roundly congratulated on his impeccable comic timing, and appreciative comments were made about the village’s newest resident coming to see off one of its oldest.

Walking home with two of our neighbours, another younger couple, we were accosted by one of the parish councillors who was in search of the slightly confused gentleman who had left the service early and who needed to return to his nursing home.  He was located, just as another lady came hurrying past in the other direction to report that she had found a confused, elderly gentleman who needed a lift back to his nursing home.  After further confusion all round it was established that there were in fact two entirely different confused gentlemen, who had both made off in different directions.  The rescue parties combined forces and, just before they headed off, one of the ladies turned to the three of us.

“You’ll be doing this for us one day,” she said, a distinct note of glee in her voice.

“Yes,” the other lady agreed.  “We’ve got young people in the village again.  Someone to look after us when we are wandering round the village in the middle of winter in just our knickers.”

Looks like we are part of the village at last. 

[Heads off to sign up for the Wandering Knicker-Wearer rota]

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