She wasn’t much of an exotic dancer, our Betty; she waved her feathers about more like Ken Dodd than Gypsy Rose Lee, but you had to give her an ‘A’ for effort.
Everybody knew Betty from Gallagher’s fish market. She always wore a striped apron covered in fish scales like some battered mermaid. She wasn’t much to look at with her clothes on and there were no surprises when she struggled out of them. But the crowd at the WMC greeted her with rapturous applause – though I felt they were applauding her like a group of amateurs waiting for their turn on talent night, and expecting the same when they performed.
I would never have guessed that Betty harboured a desire to perform the burlesque, but then Grimesford was full of surprises after the Devil came visiting.
It was a Tuesday the Devil came. I remember that because my mother had sworn blind it was Pancake Day, but my Year of Religious Festivals Diary 2005 had it on the following Tuesday. She insisted on cooking pancakes anyway. The Devil didn’t appear in a flash of smoke and a rumble of thunder, it’s true, but in every other way he was the image of his medieval self. This was something of a surprise to the market day shoppers as they paused between purchases of reduced sweaters and second hand Jeffrey Archer’s.
These days we’ve got a little too savvy and I guess we expected the Devil (not that we did expect him, mind) to appear as some smarmy spin doctor, so when he appeared sporting horns, a pointed tail and cloven hooves you could perhaps forgive us for thinking he was double bluffing us.
Grimesford folk weren’t much for the ostentatious so they gave him a cursory look and continued with their shopping as though that sort of thing happened every week. The Devil, not overly used to being ignored, gave a booming laugh and summoned up a rather nice looking ionic temple that he placed between the Mecca Bingo Hall and Fred’s Hardware Emporium. He stepped inside and put an open sign on the door.
That night at the WMC the men sat supping their bitters and the women their port and lemons and the talk came round to the Devil’s open sign. Some folk said they hadn’t even noticed him and his bloody temple, whilst others admitted seeing him but of course weren’t at all interested in what he was up to. The talk might easily have moved on to Mrs Benjamin’s ongoing verruca problem, if the Rev. Lucas hadn’t crashed through the doors on a Triumph Bonneville 650 that he preceded to screech round the club, before zooming up an overturned table and landing pin-point on the stage. He leapt from the bike and flicked his greying hair from his stigmatised eyes. ‘Great!’ he declared.
We were just about to return to our beers and verruca talk when the Rev. clapped his hands; he had, he said, an announcement to make. Now, we Grimesford folk are decent folk by and by and we do our bit for the church, but the WMC is something of a refuge from all things political and religious: sport, health and weather were the topics and leave it at that, so when the Rev. began sermonising we were a little put out.
He said that he understood our fears about the Devil arriving in Grimesford and was sure we were interested in what he had to say about it, but he’d been busy all afternoon trying to explain to one of his flock why Shrove Tuesday fell on a different day each year; once he’d sorted that matter out he had paid a visit to Mr Devil.
The Rev. had sampled the Devil’s angels cakes, which were wickedly good, and they had chatted about cricket for a while, but when the Devil declared he had come to Grimesford to fulfil everybody’s secret desire the Rev. was of course on his guard. But there was no contract to sign. No soul to promise. No lost eternity. The Devil would give and expect nothing in return. He was involved, he said, in a little experiment on God’s behalf. He would stay for a month and then be gone.
The WMC gave the good Rev. a hearing and then looked disdainfully away as he imitated Evel Knievel and jumped 10 kegs of beer before exiting on one wheel. Turns out the vicar had a penchant for fast and dirty bikes.
Next day I called on Bob 11 o’clock sharp. Wednesday we always went for a bowl and then a pint. But he wasn’t in. Never in five years had Bob missed the green with me. I made my way into town to see if he was already on the green but was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a queue at the Devil’s temple. It looked as if the whole village was there, patiently waiting and chatting in hushed tones with each other.
The Rev. screeched to a halt in front of me and revved his engine. ‘Barry, what you gonna get, you think?’ he asked.
I shrugged. I frowned. What was it I wanted? What desire lurked in my heart that the Devil could give me? I walked home wondering why I didn’t have a list the size of my arm.
Over the next few days Grimesford began to resemble a crazy holiday camp: Mrs Cartwright began to perform heavy metal guitar solos from her wheelchair; Mr Cartwright was a wonderful fire eater; Mavis from the corner shop sold goods wearing McQueen in the morning and Armani in the afternoon; her daughter became captain of the school soccer team; Ishana, the schoolteacher, danced Swan Lake; Trevor, the macho mechanic, became an effete Shakespearean actor; Phyllis the barmaid took up the decathlon even with her dodgy knees; George the barman became a teetotal cowboy herding sheep; and we know what Betty did.
But there was no Bob. I asked around but nobody had seen him.
Folk kept asking what I had been given. I was rather embarrassed to tell them I hadn’t been to see him yet. I sensed people began to think me arrogant for not giving in to my secret pleasures. So I fretted for a day or two and, on Ash Wednesday, determined to visit the Devil. But when I opened my door there he was in all his demonic red glory. He asked if he could come in and I obliged. I offered him tea and he took it black with lemon. He was pleasant enough but he did make the place smell a little like the morning after Bonfire Night.
We supped tea and talked of small things. Eventually he put down his cup and frowned, muttering that there was always one he had trouble with. I asked him what he meant, and he said that he was having trouble ‘reading’ me. He could sense problems with me but no desire. Nothing that he could satisfy anyway. I was the last resident of Grimesford to be helped.
I apologised to him. I meant it – it worried me that I had no dream. To cover my embarrassment I asked about Bob. Ah, Bob, he said with a grin. I’m afraid he won’t be bowling with you for a while. Then he asked me to escort him to the graveyard.
In the cemetery, where Sam the gravedigger was busy putting the finishing touches to a marble statue of himself, the Devil led me to a stone that bore two names: Beverley, mother and wife, and Mandy, daughter. Died the same day. In a car crash. Six years ago.
The Devil and I bowed our heads in thought. I knew what Bob’s desire was – to have his wife and daughter back.
‘Do you have anyone here?’ the Devil asked.
I led him over to Alison’s grave. My dear Alison, taken almost ten years ago. My wife. My love. My desire.
‘I still don’t really understand death,’ said the Devil.
‘Nor I,’ I said.
The Devil told me it wasn’t in his power to raise the dead, or heal the sick, just to grant what desire he could in whatever way he could. He pulled out a photograph and showed it to me. It was Bob with his arms around Beverley and Mandy.
‘Bob,’ said the Devil.
I looked again at the photograph. It was Beverley and Mandy seven years ago, but it was Bob as he was now.
The Devil explained that he couldn’t bring Bob’s loved ones back, but he could freeze Bob in time with them. Bob re-lived the freeze frame forever. Forever he held them and all three smiled. Forever he forgot and lived it again.
I thought about the pictures I had of Alison. Thought about her beautiful smile.
The Devil left me with my thoughts.
I knew it was a limited offer. The sign on the temple declared the Devil was open for business for 40 days and 40 nights.
That night I lay in bed thinking of Alison. Every night I lay in bed thinking about Alison, but that night was different; I wondered what it would be like to have my arm around her forever. I remembered what it was like to touch her. To smell her. To feel her. What would she want me to do? What would she do if the situation was reversed?
I slept little and what sleep I got was seasoned with tears.
In the morning I went to the Devil’s temple. He had only just risen and let me share in his breakfast of marmalade and toast. The marmalade was nice but he told me that he’d made the toast by sticking the bread near some burning souls and, though he laughed, I wasn’t sure he was joking. He knew why I’d come so we got down to it.
I asked to see the picture of Bob again and pointed out that as he was looking straight at the camera he couldn’t see his wife and child and wouldn’t see them for eternity. The Devil agreed with that but said it wasn’t a problem putting me in a photo looking at my wife. But I told him that Alison was dead; the photo was just an image, a shadow of her. It wasn’t even a memory that was alive and vibrant – it was two-dimensional.
Alison was dead. I repeated it. It had been a long time since I’d said those words and maybe I’d forgotten the naked truth of it. But she was dead.
I told the Devil that the one thing I wanted he couldn’t give me. He could make me into a great cricketer but I would always be making runs alone. And that was fine, I realised now. You still had to get up in the morning and cook meals and go to work. You have to live in this life and hope, just hope, that you can meet the love of your life again somewhere else. Somewhere other.
The Devil sighed and said, ‘There’s always one.’ He told me that every seven years he has a bet with God that he can seduce a whole town by fulfilling all their secret desires, within limits, and God smiles and says that there will always be one.
When the Devil left so did the talents: the actor returned to the garage; the cowboy hung up his hat. At first people were resentful of me for spoiling their fun, but gradually the town returned to normal.
But sometimes when I buy my fish, Betty turns salmon pink and looks away and I wonder what it is like to see deep into the heart; really deep into the heart.