Friday night at The Dag’s Rattle. Julie Hale, Littleton’s new librarian, was sitting at the bar sharing a pint of ale with two elders who had kindly offered to share some of the town lore.
“Who are those lovebirds?” Julie nodded over to the other end of the pub, where a young couple in matching rugby jerseys were making googly eyes at each other.
Mrs. Hogg smiled indulgently.
“That’s Mary and James Wright. Honeymooners. And if you’d told me one year ago that they’d end up in the happily-ever-after department, well, I would’ve said you were mad.”
“Why?” asked Julie.
Mrs. Budger snorted, as at a private joke.
“They were only sworn enemies, that’s why,” said Mrs. Hogg
“Enemies? But this seems like such a sleepy little town! I would’ve thought Littleton was the most peaceful place on Earth.” Julie’s eyes were wide.
“Don’t you believe it, dearie!” Mrs. Hogg said. “This place has its fair share of blood feuds, some of them going back generations, and that was the case with the Wrights and the Coopers.”
“What happened?” Julie asked.
Mrs. Hogg shifted her ample backside with the air of someone getting down to business.
“It all started back in 1905 when Mary’s great-great-grandfather, Bill Cooper, looked like a shoo-in for the New Zealand national rugby team, the one that was going off to tour Britain.”
“The Originals,” Mrs. Budger murmured reverently.
“Legend has it that Bill’s best friend Stan Wright, James’s ancestor and a known practical joker, snookered his chances.”
“How?” asked Julie.
“Some say Stan stole Bill’s clothes, others say he fed him horse medicine. The story I favour is that he covered himself in flour and woke Bill in the middle of the night pretending to be the ghost of Captain Cook. He said on no account should Stan play in the trials next day or the Hawaiians would come and show him the business-end of their pololus. Anyhow, Bill never got to the trials, the team became the legend it is today. Stan saw the error of his ways, of course, and apologized, but Bill never did forgive him. Turned to drink and died of cirrhosis.”
“Too bad! But surely it should have died with those two. Why did the grudge carry on?”
“Grudges grow legs,” Mrs. Budger said sagely. Mrs. Hogg nodded and went on.
“Bill’s sister Gert was engaged to Stan, but she broke the wedding off after the prank, calling him an inbred nitwit. Stan’s mother took offense at that (her own parents were first cousins) and some choice words were exchanged. From then on in, it was a family affair, with one side chalking up grievances against the other.
“Mary’s grandfather Jim, for instance, was Mayor of Littleton in the ’60s and James’s uncle Harry (a market gardener) used to dump rotten vegetables at the Town Hall entrance every Monday morning just as long as Jim was mayor. They sent old Harry to jail a few times for being a public nuisance but it never stopped him, stubborn old git—he’d just get a mate or a nephew to do it instead.”
“Old guys bickering is one thing,” said Julie, “But for goodness sakes, it’s 2018! Why should these young things care?”
“Well, Mary since she was knee-high to a grasshopper was absolutely rugby-mad. Used to practice goal kicks in the local rugby grounds until the sun went down. She took it pretty hard the day she found out girls couldn’t be All Blacks, poor thing.”
“Nearly set fire to the goalposts, lucky Constable Todd caught her in time,” Mrs. Budger said.
“Then her dad, seeing the timing was right for perpetuating the family feud, told her her great-great-granddaddy could’ve been an All Black if it weren’t for Stan Wright’s dirty deed. Well, I doubt if there’s ever been a more furious ten-year-old. From that day forward, James Wright was Enemy Number One.”
“And Two, Three, Four…all the numbers,” Mrs. Budger nodded.
“Eh?” Mrs. Hogg squinted at her friend. “Anyway, James didn’t know what hit him. He didn’t see the sense in getting upset about something that happened more than a century ago. He just wanted to be friends. Mary wasn’t having it. Remember that day she took his skateboard and broke it over his head? They would’ve been about twelve at the time, I think.”
“That’s right. He was seeing birdies that day,” Mrs. Budger chuckled.
“James’s parents were going to press charges but Mary was too young. Anyway, they sent him away to a private school in the city so he wouldn’t have to see her anymore. The next time they met he’d just left school and he was going door-to-door collecting donations for the Tiny Tacklers Tournament. He was with your nephew, Olly, wasn’t he?”
“He was,” said Mrs. Budger, “Olly told me it was love at first sight. Mary answered the door and James looked like he’d been winded by a head-high tackle. Mary seemed smitten too, even invited them in for a marmite scone. Halfway through the chat, she narrowed her eyes and said, ‘You look familiar… have we met?’. James said he didn’t think so but Olly announced he was only James Wright, the province’s best tighthead prop and—he thought he was giving his mate a boost, you see.”
“‘James Wright, eh?’ said Mary and Olly said he guessed something was up by the way her voice went all quiet and crooked. ‘Scuse me a minute,’ she said and went into another room. She came back with a hunting rifle aimed at James’s head and said she’d have his guts for garters if he ever set foot on the property again.”
“She sounds insane!” Julia exclaimed.
“Mary? Oh no, everyone has their quirks and with her it’s just she’s passionate about the game.”
Mrs. Budger said, “She fired a warning shot over their heads. Olly’s ears were ringing for a week.”
“Did they call the police?” Julia asked.
“Olly wanted to,” Mrs. Budger said, “But James was against it. He said he could see her side of the story and that it was a terrible thing for his great-great-granddad to do so no wonder she was upset. When James said he was going to try to talk her round, Olly knew it was love-with-a-capital-‘L’, and he was afraid his friend was going to end up in a plus-sized casket.
“‘Mate, she’s pretty sore at you. Are you sure you want to risk it?’ he said.
“‘Oh yeah. I’ve thought of a great way to make it up to her,’ said James.
“‘How’s that, mate?’
“‘You’ll see,’ and he wouldn’t say another word about it.
“Next thing you knew, James disappeared for a while. Olly didn’t know where he’d gone. Then, about two weeks later he got a phone call, very mysterious, from James telling him everything was ready.
“‘What’s ready, mate?’ asked Olly, completely baffled.
“‘The project,’ said James.
“‘Oh, the project,’ said Olly, none the wiser.
“‘Can you meet me tonight?’ asked James.
“‘Where?’ asked Olly.
“‘Up on Bolger’s Hill, at the trig point,’ said James. ‘At midnight.’
“‘OK,” said Olly, even more baffled.
“‘Just one thing, though,’ said James. ‘It’s top secret. Don’t breathe a word about it to anybody.’”
“‘All right, mate,’ said Olly, ‘Scout’s honor.’
“So Olly goes up this blasted hill in the middle of the night and sees James up there with a headlamp and carpentry gear. He asked James what was going on, and James points over where a gigantic shape is looming, partially lit by the light of the headlamp.
“‘What in the name of Dave Dobbin’s dungarees is that?’ Olly goes, white as a sheet.
“‘It’s a monument to my angel’s great-great-grandfather,’ said James, offended.
“‘You’re joking,’ said Olly.
“‘I am not joking,’ said James, going red as a beetroot, ‘And I’ll thank you to be respectful in the presence of the great athlete’s physical representative on Earth.’
“‘Mate, don’t worry,’ said Olly. ‘I’ll be respectful, don’t you worry. That face is enough to scare anyone. I’ll be having nightmares about it. From hereon in.’
“‘Good,’ said James.
“‘Not to pry, but is this the project you were talking about?’
“‘This is it, my masterpiece. I’ve been collecting metal from the scrapyard—you know I started working there last year? And drew up the plans. I welded it in different bits and hauled them up here separately. I finished the head this afternoon—melted some cans to be like silver tears. And some others to make the silver fern on the jersey. Now I’ve finished it welding all together, we can put it up!’ he says, pleased as punch.
“‘Eh? Here?’ said Olly.
“‘Yes, here! How else are people going to see it?’
“‘Don’t you need a permit?’
“‘As soon as everyone sees how great it is, well, then it’ll be allowed to stay. It’ll become a local tourist attraction.’
“‘I see,’ said Olly, who was humoring him at this point. ‘One question, though.’
“‘How will people know it’s Bill Cooper? He’s not actually famous since he never became an All Black.’
“‘That’s the other thing you’re going to help me with. As soon as we get this jigged up, we’re going to burn a sign in the hillside with this blowtorch.’ So Olly went ahead helping his mate and they got the thing done before dawn.”
“Olly’s a good boy,” said Mrs. Budger, “Always helps his friends.”
“And they let fate do its work. Sure enough, noon the next day, James got a knock on his door. It was Mary. He looked at her all doubtful, unable to gauge her reaction. Maybe he’d done the nose too big, or maybe she wanted something a bit less showy.
She threw her arms around him.
“It’s wonderful!” she sobbed. “I can’t stop looking at it! And the sign! ‘Bill Cooper—Our Unsung Hero!’ It’s genius, James!”
“’People will come all over the world and see how great he was!’ he beamed. ‘And you can have all the tourism proceeds, after tax!’
“And so it was,” said Mrs. Hogg, “That they were married the very next month right under the statue, and Olly was best man.”
Julie looked skeptical.
“So, she forgave him, just like that?”
“Yes, he’d proven he had the Original All Black Spirit, you see, and that goes a long way. Of course, that doesn’t mean everything else is peaches and cream for the young couple.”
“Oh god no, what do you think? They’re pariahs in this place now. We’re a complete laughingstock thanks to that eyesore—comedians are having a field day! We’re pressing charges–”
“Who is, you and Mrs. Budger?”
“The whole town, dearie! The whole town. But strictly through legal channels…none of us want to get on Mary’s bad side, do we?”