The Mayor makes his way to the stage to give the final result of Upshott Creek’s most hotly-contested Blooming Big Beard-Off in years. The competitors wait. They’ve done all they can. One scowls at another, much smaller, finalist, and broods. The audience holds its collective breath. ‘The winner of this year’s Blooming Big Beard-Off,’ the Mayor begins, ‘by unanimous decision, is…’
Stop – let’s not give away the ending before we’ve even begun. Instead, let’s talk for a second about the sort of place that would host, without any irony, a contest called the Blooming Big Beard-Off. Upshott Creek, a typical British countryside town, is that sort of place. There’s a pub – the Leaky Cock – a post office, a village hall, a corner shop, and not much else. To describe it as ‘tinpot’ would be to offend tin pots. However, this quaint – a word often used as a substitute for ‘boring’ – old town plays host to two very special annual contests, both of which whip the residents into what, in an out of the way community like this, passes for a frenzy.
The first is the Swiss Roll. As you may know, other British towns often host a cheese rolling contest, where dozens of lunatics gather to chase a massive Edam down a vertiginous slope. There are several broken limbs and internal injuries, and afterwards everyone pretends they had a bloody fantastic time and can’t wait to do it again next year, before going home in agony and taking several days off work. Which is, of course, the real reason people take part.
But the Swiss Roll is different. The elderly Mayor, Mr Reginald Jeremiah Lofferthwaite – not his real name, that’s Reg Gunk, but you can’t have a Mayor called that, can you? – lines up the town’s two unfortunate Swiss residents, Francis and Edith Ruegsegger, and pushes them down the Upshott Ridge. The town’s dedicated thrillseekers – all six of them – chase the poor couple and the first to catch them gets a cheque for ten pounds, while Francis and Edith get concussions. No-one’s ever been sure why they volunteer year after year.
However, the event that gets everyone really, really excited is the Blooming Big Beard-Off, where the men of the parish gather to show off their long, luxurious facial hair in competition. Last year’s victor, Dennis Cooper, still wears his winner’s rosette in his giant, Viking-esque blonde beard, which he proudly shows off to the town’s womenfolk during Happy Hour (all drinks reduced by 5p!) every night in the Leaky Cock.
Now, here we are at the village hall. The final round of judging is over. Three contestants remain on the rickety stage. There’s Martin Barton, the post office clerk, his long brown beard down to his waist. He is scowling. This is not unusual for Martin, who scowls at his customers all day, every day, begrudgingly parting with stamps and envelopes, sighing when people dare to ask for passport forms (‘We don’t do those here, do I look like a travel agent?’) and charging extra for parcels that clearly actually would fit through a letterbox if given a bit of a shove. Martin was not popular with the good folk of Upshott Creek.
Then there are two people no-one recognises. One towers over the others. He is clad in a long trenchcoat and big black boots, and possesses a knee-length fiery orange beard. He is Blaze Bagshaw. The other is the reason for Martin’s scowl. ‘He’ is tiny, blonde, wearing a Hello Kitty t-shirt and, despite the fake goatee and twirly moustache, is obviously Jenny Fossett, eight-year-old daughter of Petunia Fossett from the corner shop. Well, this is obvious to you, me and Martin. It seems somewhat less obvious to the judges and the audience, much to Martin’s chagrin. She has introduced herself, as gruffly as she can, as ‘Bob Jessop’.
The judges have just finished praising Bob’s elaborate moustache, which has been decorated with glitter and colourful pipe cleaners. They’ve also enjoyed the ‘fine, deep colours’ of Blaze’s beard, receiving nothing other than a long, dark stare in thanks. Martin’s facial hair has been appreciated as ‘a great effort’, but it’s apparent that he isn’t in the running. They are now deliberating their overall winner.
The Chief Judge, Mayor Lofferthwaite, stands at the front of the stage. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he intones, as only a Mayor can. ‘We have, once again, been hugely impressed by the quality of this year’s entries, and we on the panel can only say a deep, heartfelt—‘ pause, puts hand over heart – ‘thank you to everyone who took part in this year’s contest.
‘But there can only be one man who walks away with the grand prize of a cheque worth ten whole pounds!’ – the Mayor was very unimaginative when it came to competition prizes – ‘So the winner of this year’s Blooming Big Beard-Off, by unanimous decision, is…’
A drum roll. (Which is not at all like a Swiss Roll.)
Martin storms to the front of the stage and grabs the mic. ‘Are you serious? You must be blind!’
‘Martin, the judges think—‘ begins the Mayor.
‘You obviously think the square root of bugger all,’ growls Martin, ‘if you believe that is a man.’
‘Now Martin,’ says Mayor Lofferthwaite. ‘That must be a man. Only a man could grow such a fine, flamboyant moustache and goatee.’
‘She’s got pigtails!’
‘And as long as said man is over 16 years old, he’s free to enter the competition.’
‘Does she look over 16!?’ bellows Martin, pointing at Bob, who makes a ‘who, me?’ gesture with her fingers. ‘She’s only four foot tall!’
‘I’ve been ill!’ gruffs Bob.
‘Rot! Total rot!’ says Martin. He strides over to Bob and, with one swift yank, removes her beard and moustache, crushing them in his fist and dropping them on the floor. Jenny’s face crumples like wet cardboard.
The crowd gasps.
The judges gasp.
Martin Barton looks smug.
Blaze Bagshaw watches impassively.
Jenny Fossett bursts into tears.
Dennis Cooper gazes admiringly at his rosette.
Francis and Edith Ruegsegger eat Toblerone and admire their new cuckoo clock. (They weren’t at the Beard-Off, but were instead at home, preparing for Upshott Creek’s first ever National Stereotypes Competition, due to take place early in the New Year.)
The judges huddle. Murmur, murmur, they go. Murmur, murmur, murmur. Eventually, Mayor Lofferthwaite returns to the stage.
‘Well, we are all very surprised by this turn of events,’ he says. ‘That was a truly astonishing disguise.’
An eye roll from Martin. (Also not like a Swiss Roll.)
‘But it’s with regret that we have to disqualify you, Jenny. I’m sorry, love, but the rules are the rules.’
Jenny’s tears soak her pink shoes.
‘Is there anyone here who can take Jenny home?’ asks the Mayor. Jenny’s Auntie Andrea stands and weaves her way to the stage. She puts her arm around Jenny, and guides her down the steps and out of the hall.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, we do apologise for the… irregularity,’ says Mayor Lofferthwaite. ‘But we have come to a new decision. We have decided that the winner of the Blooming Big Beard-Off and the ten pound cheque is…’
Another drum roll. (Let’s not do that joke again.)
Applause from the audience. A bag of confetti, tied somewhere near the hall’s rafters, explodes limply, showering Blaze with colourful paper. Martin scowls some more, and stamps off stage. The Mayor shuffles up to Blaze.
‘Well done, Sir!’
‘Ta,’ mutters Blaze.
‘How do you feel?’
Blaze looks at him, stoney-faced. ‘Ecstatic,’ he replies.
‘And what are you going to spend your ten pounds on?’ The Mayor hands Blaze his postal order and rosette, which is considerably bigger and grander than last year’s. Dennis Cooper eyes his own, suddenly poorer, rosette sadly and wonders what the future will hold now.
‘Might get me pants dry cleaned.’
‘Oh… right. Well, good hygiene is important – well done! And thank you everyone for coming – we’ll see you all for next year’s Blooming Big Beard-Off! And don’t forget to enter our first ever National Stereotype Contest in a few months!’
Mr and Mrs Sanchez from Guadalajara, clad in ponchos and oversized hats, attempt a two-person Mexican wave before giving up and going home to eat chilli and tend to their jumping beans.
The crowd exit to the sound of ZZ Top blaring from the PA system.
Later that night, Jenny Fossett lay in bed and listened as the front door closed and footsteps creaked up the stairs. Her bedroom door slid open, and the light snapped on. She blinked in the brightness, and the face of Blaze Bagshaw came into focus.
‘Did you win then?’ she asked, sleepily.
‘Certainly did, hun,’ said Blaze, his deep throaty tone suddenly replaced by something much more feminine. He removed his beard and dropping it into Jenny’s dressing-up box. ‘Put that idiot Martin in his place, and about time too. The prices he charges for parcels! Horrible little man.’
‘Well done, mum,’ said Jenny.
‘Thanks, love,’ said Petunia Fossett.