29 September 2000

Mrs Parker –

the village gossip

IM not one to gossip," says Mrs Parker. "But seeing as were on the subject, you might as well know…"

Most of Mrs Parkers conversations start this way. There then follows a diatribe on the latest subject of her attention. Or, rather, her latest victim.

It might be the parish council. "Theyre all on the fiddle." The local landowner. "Hes a drinker, you know." Or the publicans wife. "The hussy."

But Mrs Parkers strongest venom is directed at the woman next door. "She has men in when her husbands at work," she says, her nose turning up. "Men, one after the other, a whole procession – tall, short, fat, thin. Shes not picky, that one."

For years, Mrs Parker has been slandering her neighbour in bus queues, in shop aisles, at WI meetings – at every available opportunity, in fact. As a propaganda machine, Maureen Parker could teach Saddam Hussein a thing or two.

She, of course, doesnt see herself as a gossip. "Were just looking out for each other," she reckons. What shes looking out of mostly, however, is a chink in her net curtains.

The kitchen window affords her the best view of whats going on next-door-but-one. "He hits her, you know." The bedroom is the ideal vantage point from which to keep an eye on the family over the road. "They never do a stroke of work." And kids on the village green are best monitored from the bathroom. "Its drugs, I know it."

The binoculars on Mrs Parkers coffee table, needless to say, arent for birdwatching.

Her job in the village shop also affords her ideal news-gathering opportunities. Behind the counter, work and reconnaissance go hand-in-hand. People go in for a book of stamps and stay an hour. Some get an update on events. Others – those she disapproves of – find themselves facing a critical inquisition. More people are in the latter category than the former.

Mrs Parker knows how to get people to open up. A sincere look here, a precisely-placed pause there. "It wont go any further than these four walls," she says, reassuringly. Which four walls she never specifies.

She stores away what shes told, systematically, logically, ready to be retrieved from her computer-like memory. Minor misdemeanours she remembers for years; major ones, decades. "Nosey Parker," the kids call her. "The smiling viper," their dads say.

Mrs Parker doesnt mention her own children these days. Twin boys who, in their day, generated plenty of gossip of their own. Theyve long since left the village, leaving her shouting at other peoples children – tutting and scaring them with obscure Biblical references.

"Theres nothing I can do for them any more," she once confessed of her own boys after too much wine at the Vicarage Christmas lunch. Then, in a moment of equally rare openness, added: "It broke my heart."

Afterwards, she denied any over-indulgence. She insisted she had two glasses – two small glasses – and that they were medicinal. "Im not one to gossip," she added, "but seeing as were on the subject you might as well know… the vicar was knocking it back a bit."