Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Vagrant

At first I though Sam was sleeping when I found him lying under the hedge on that bright winter’s morning. But he was quite dead. “Poor old chap” I said to myself. For some reason my first instinct was to find an old blanket and cover him, though God knows, he was hardly in need of protection from the cold any more.
Over the past couple of years he’d been a “regular” in our street, appearing on my front doorstep and those of my neighbours where he could be fairly sure he’d get food or drink. I guess we are a pretty well disposed lot. No-one ever threatened him or sent him off. But then there was a decency, even a dignity about him. He communicated by look rather than voice, and in doing so he brought out the best in us.
I’m not sure how he came to be called “Sam”. It may have been old Mrs Dobson, two doors up from me, who had so named him. She had a stone seat in her front garden, and Sam would make himself comfortable there on occasions, often dozing for much of a sunny afternoon under the shade of her cherry tree. She referred to him as “just an old vagrant with a bit of a cheek”. But she let him be.
We thought it a nice touch when she had the small brass plate made and inscribed with “Sam’s Place”, and set on the back rest of that seat. And the engraving of the cat’s head under the words wasn’t a bad likeness of the old tabby. I miss him.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Pride and Palimpsests

Palimpsest: a manuscript on which two or more successive texts have been written, each one being erased to make room for the next. (Collins Dictionary).

Like 99% of the general population, I’d no idea what the word meant. If I’d been wise to it, I wouldn’t have come within a whisker of losing my inheritance. I was aunt Dorothea’s only living relative, but her opinion of me was mixed at best and I knew she’d toyed with other ideas about what to do with her considerable fortune when the time came to pass it on.

I’d answered an advertisement in the county magazine: “Pet Portraiture and Palimpsests”. Always trying to find ways to secure my niche in my aunt’s good books, I thought I would treat her. Her birthday was fast approaching, and I was certain that a painting of her adored white Persian cat would go down a treat. I didn’t bother to seek out my shorter Collins dictionary to find out what was a pali-whatsit. More fool me.

I should have suspected something wasn’t right when Tom arrived in a white van at my aunt’s house one morning by arrangement when she’d gone up to London for the day. I mean, he was a total caricature, complete with beret, Breton shirt and goatee beard. But I despatched him to the garden where I knew that Scheherezade had adopted a classic pose – as was her custom – in the sun. I sat and read the paper and let him get on with it. He was a fast worker, popping his head through the open window after an hour and calling out ‘All done!’

He didn’t hang around (I’d paid him cash in advance). I’d assumed that the finished work would be delivered in due course. That was another lesson I should have learned – don’t take things for granted if you don’t want to be taken for an idiot.

Aunt Dorothea returned late in the afternoon and duly made her way out to the garden where Scheherezade was presumably still sleeping.

Her shriek would have woken the Gods. ‘Oh, you wicked, wicked boy! What have you done?’

She ran in, clutching the cat in her arms. To my horror I realised that Tom had painted her OK. I mean, literally painted her. She had been transformed - into a very fine tabby indeed. The marking was classic. Only her eyes were the wrong colour, of course.

Fortunately, like most cats Scheherezade was fastidious, and lost no time getting to work on the overpainting with her tongue. I think that Tom, joker as he must have been, used paint flavoured to appeal to feline taste buds. Probably fish paste. But it took her two weeks to wash away the last trace of the results of his undoubted skill. I though it a bit of a pity, but was careful to avoid sharing my opinion with aunt Dorothea.

I did see Tom just once more, a couple of weeks later, driving too fast for me to hail him down as I should dearly have liked to have done. The familiar logo was on the side of his van. But as it receded in the distance I caught what was emblazoned on the back. I felt well and truly mocked:

Revamp your cat – just visit Tom

Saturday, 7 July 2012

His Little Singing Thrush

Two strong hands grasped my shoulders from behind. I felt myself being pushed over the low parapet. Horror struck, I gazed into the blackness.
            I knew it was my uncle Tod before I heard his voice. It wasn’t just the power of his grip. It was the familiar smell of his hands. Sort of metallic and gunpowdery.
            ‘You little bugger!’ he spat down my neck. ‘Just you let me catch you here once more and I’ll throw you down – no kidding!’
            I believed him. I’d have been about eight years old then. I don’t remember what had drawn me to the well at the end of his and aunt Mavis’s garden. I suppose that like most youngsters I was fascinated by anything deep and dark, more so if you couldn’t see the bottom.
            Later that day, when he returned, mellow, after two hours at Butcher’s Arms, he spoke to me again. He wasn’t angry like he had been. But he was certainly out to frighten me.
            ‘I meant what I said about the well. There’s no water to he had from it now. Not since they drilled the bores for the new estate. But d’you know what is down there, boy?’ He brought his faced close up to me. The was a dampness on his brow, and beer on his breath.
            I shook my head.
            ‘Snakes, lad! Poisonous snakes! Just one bite would kill you. They’d be all over you. You wouldn’t stand a chance …’
            I took him at his word. Even when I left childhood behind I avoided going anywhere near the old well. But it wasn’t too long after he caught me there that he left. He had a scrap yard that for some reason a couple of property developers had their eyes on. Tod Drummond, barely literate as he was, was cunning. He played the two off against one another, and by all accounts made a killing when he sold it. Aunt Mavis wasn’t sure just how much he’d made as it was a cash deal, and he didn’t hang around to tell her. She put it about that he’d gone off with what she called a “fancy woman”. She was pretty upset for the first few weeks after he left, but then settled into a kind of routine. If you could call it that. She kept herself to one small room, and kept it clean and tidy enough. But she let the rest of the house go. As the years went by it shed slates, gutters and plasterwork like a moulting animal. The garden became neglected and overgrown.
            For a long time I made only occasional visits to my aunt. I was her only living relative, and I felt a sense of responsibility for her. I felt sorry for her, too. She’d had a hard life with uncle Tod. She’d been much under his thumb, and he had a nasty side to his character, which usually showed he was drunk. He’d come home from the pub and knock her about. Yet he could be affectionate too. In those days she’d been in the habit of singing about the house and in her little kitchen garden. “My little singing thrush” uncle Tod called her when he heard her.
            I didn’t like to see her home in the state it was and I offered to help her with repairs, but she always refused me. ‘One day it’ll be yours, Davy. You can do what you like with it then.’
            When I started with the light engineering company in Sefton, just five miles away from where aunt Mavis lived, I started calling in on her more frequently. She always made me welcome and appreciated my doing the occasional bit of shopping for her. As she grew older she became less able to get out and about. She had arthritis and was inclined to be unsteady on her feet. She refused any other help and I guess I and my wife, Sally, were pretty much the only people she saw. I wonder now if this had something to do with uncle Tod. She seldom talked about him, but on the rare occasions that I referred to him, she was defensive. No doubt there was gossip in the neighbourhood, and she wouldn’t have anything said against him.
            Late one afternoon, as I let myself in through her back door with a bag of shopping, I heard her singing softly to herself. Her voice wasn’t what it had been, but I recognised the tune.
            Hark the mavis’ evening sang
            Singing Clouden’s woods amang …
            ‘That was a favourite of uncle Tod’s, wasn’t it aunt?’
            She was pensive for a moment. ‘It was …’ She was Scots, of course. ‘Burns. Set to music by one of your English composers’. She stayed lost in thought. Then – ‘he was a good man … once. Gentle, even, would you believe it? Then the drink got to him …’
            ‘Perhaps it was as well he left.’
            ‘Perhaps. But he took everything, Davey. Left me with nothing. He had money. But I never found … he never left me with a penny.’ She looked away from me.  ‘All went on women and drink, I dare say.’
            ‘You know I’d always help you out, aunt Mavis. I don’t know how you manage at all on your pension.’ She shook her head emphatically. But she never kicked up a fuss when I arranged for a few bags of coal to be delivered to stock up the bunker outside the back door.
            Not long after that conversation things began to get busy at work. I sensed that there were some changes afoot and Jim Denton, the owner of the business seemed anxious to get a number of orders processed quickly. One afternoon he called me into his office. His jacket was slung across the back of his chair and his tie was loose about his neck. His hair was more than usually unkempt.
            ‘David – thanks for dropping in. Take a seat.’ He waved me to the chair opposite his at the desk. ‘Thing is, there are going to be some changes around here and you need to know.’
            ‘What changes, Jim?’
            ‘To get straight to the point, I’m selling the business. Langton’s have made me an offer, and it’s too good to refuse. Mary isn’t as well as she was, as you know. I’d like to have more time with her. And this is my chance to get out and retire reasonably comfortably.’
            ‘That’s great Jim! I’m pleased for you. Mary will be thrilled, I’m sure.’
            Jim nodded. But he wouldn’t look me in the eye. He must have known that his decision would have consequences for me that wouldn’t be so good. Langton’s was a much larger affair than Jim’s, and a competitor. The chances were that they would simply close the smaller factory. And even if they didn’t, I very much doubted that they would be inclined to keep me on as manager.
            ‘I know this has come as a shock. I’m trying to get an assurance out of Langton’s that they’ll keep this set up running and hold on to the men.’
            ‘D’you hold out much hope? I mean …’
            He didn’t let me finish. ‘They know that this company is efficient and cost effective, OK. And innovative, too, thanks mostly to the work you’ve done. You’ve got a great future, David. If they decided there wasn’t a place here for you, you’d have no trouble finding something.’
            If his optimism was genuine, I didn’t share it. Yes, I could probably get a job. But it could be a hundred, two hundred miles away. Sally would be devastated, and the kids would be upset too, having to leave their friends and moving to another school. And then there was aunt Mavis.
            I stared at the distance out of the window. No doubt Jim knew more or less exactly the impact his news had had on me. ‘Davey,’ he said, ‘you know that I would far rather that you took over the business, for all sorts of reasons. If you were in a position to match Langton’s offer I’d …’
            ‘Not a snowball’s chance, Jim. You know that. I’ve a fair idea what the business is worth – what Langton’s are offering for it. If I went to the bank and asked for a loan that size, they’d laugh at me.’
            Jim took of his glasses and polished them absent-mindedly. I could see that he felt awkward. He’d been a good boss to me, and a good employer to the men on the floor. And I couldn’t blame him for making the decision he had. In his shoes I’d have done the same.
            ‘You’ll make out, David. Any job you apply for, I’ll give you a bloody fine reference. This business owes a lot to you, and so do I’.
            ‘Thanks for that, Jim. There’s no need to worry about me.’
*  *  *
Sally took the news badly, as I knew she would, when I broke it to her that evening. She tried to make light of it, bless her, but I could see that she was trying to sort out the implications of it all in her mind.
            ‘I … I’d always thought that you’d take over the firm entirely one day. Jim had such a good opinion of you.’
            ‘I think he’s more worried about his wife that he let on. I can see why a clean break is so attractive. Particularly if Langton’s are making the sort of offer I think they are.’
            ‘Will you start looking for another job?’
            ‘Uh-huh. It might be sensible to put out a few feelers.’
            ‘Will we have to move? I mean, the kids are settled, and then there’s your aunt. She’s got no-one else, and she’s really become quite dependent on us. And, Davey …’
            ‘It’s just that I’m … I’m not too happy about her’
            ‘Aunt Mavis?’
            ‘Yes. I called in on her today, and I talked to her again about seeing the doctor. And she agreed …’
            She’s agreed to see a doctor? That’s not the aunt Mavis I know … something must be up with her. Did she tell you what was bothering her?’
            Sally shook her head. ‘No. But I didn’t like her colour. Sort of yellowish. Davey – I think she’s got jaundice. That could mean something bad, couldn’t it?’
*  *  *
The doctor at the GP surgery was inclined to be reassuring. But I could see that he wasn’t entirely happy. His decision to order a raft of tests ‘just to make sure’ suggested to me that he wasn’t sure at all. I played down my misgivings to Sally, but aunt Mavis herself had an air of quiet resignation as I helped her into the car and took her home.
            ‘Whatever his tests show, I want him to be absolutely straight with me. If it’s bad I want to know. There’s one or two things I need to sort out before I …’
            ‘Don’t worry, aunt,’ I reassured her. ‘These days they tend to be honest and up front, even if the news is bad. But I’m sure it won’t be. Like he said – there’s lots of causes of jaundice. Often people get better with rest and a change of diet …’
            ‘Not so often when it’s in people as old as I am. But we’ll know soon enough, I suppose.’
            She was right on both counts. Within two weeks she was told – as gently as these things can be done – that she had an inoperable cancer. There was certainly some effective treatment she could have that might give her a year or two. But she was quite adamant that she wasn’t having any of it.
            In fact I think she did not very much want to go on living. Perhaps because of this her health began to deteriorate quickly, and within a month she was admitted to the hospice in Sefton, just a short walk from where I worked. And it was from there, late one afternoon, that the sister on the ward where she’d been admitted telephoned me.
            ‘Is that David Mason? I’m calling about your aunt, Mrs Drummond. She’s taken a turn for the worse. She’s quite agitated and she’s asking for you. Can you come in and see her?’
            ‘Of course. I could be with you in, er, twenty minutes or so. Is she very bad?’
            ‘She’s not good. She’s got herself in a state. Just come as soon as you can without breaking any speed limits.’
            Half an hour later I was at my aunt’s bed side. For a moment it seemed she didn’t know me. I think her sight was failing. But when she heard my voice she seemed to become calmer.
            ‘Davey! Oh, I’m glad you’ve come to see me. There’s something …’
            ‘It’s OK aunt. It’s me. You’re going to be fine.’
            She shook her head. Her eyes closed. ‘It’s the end for me, Davey. But there’s something … something I have to tell you.’
            ‘What’s that, aunt? Take your time. There’s no need to upset yourself …’
            ‘It’s about the old fox, Davey …’
            For a moment I’d no idea what she was talking about. ‘The old fox? What old fox?’
            ‘I killed him, Davey. I shot him with the rabbit gun. He was … blind drunk. He came for me with a knife. I shot him.’ Her voice grew weaker, and she seemed to drift.
            ‘Aunt Mavis … you don’t mean … you can’t …’
            Her voice fell to a hoarse whisper. ‘The old fox. Tod … the old fox …’
            Her breathing became laboured, noisy. She lapsed into unconsciousness.
            The sister looked in around the drawn curtains. She stepped over to my aunt and checked her pulse. She turned to me. ‘Best let her rest now. She’s comfortable – not in any pain.’
            I nodded. I knew what she was telling me. Less than an hour later my aunt was dead. And on her death bed she had confessed to me that she had killed her husband. 
*  *  *
The police officer who interviewed me was hardly overwhelmed by my account. In fact I felt rather foolish reporting it at all.
            ‘So what you’re telling me, sir, is that your elderly aunt told you, just before she died, that she shot her husband … about 15 years ago? Had you any reason to suppose she did kill him?’
            ‘Nothing she ever told me before had made me suspect it. But with hindsight … I don’t know. It was strange that he should just have gone as she always claimed, without ever any contact at all.’
            I had given all the details as I knew them, and they were sparse enough. Little wonder the police were sceptical. They recorded the interview with me and said that they would make some enquiries and be in touch. I found myself doubting that they would even bother. In the mean time I had other business to attend to. I’d had a telephone call from a solicitor’s office. My aunt had made a will, I was told, and would I come in to discuss it. She had left a small estate, and I was the sole beneficiary.
            ‘It’s all quite straightforward,’ Mr Donaldson, the junior partner, told me. ‘There is her property, of course, which she owned. And a small sum of money in a savings account. And there is a letter addressed to you which I understands contains instructions about her funeral.’
            I was under no illusions as to the value of her estate. The house was small, in disrepair and worth little enough in the economic climate at the time. Sally had murmured to me that it might make the difference so far as an offer to buy Jim Denton’s business. I’d shaken my head. ‘There’s no question of that, really.’ And she’d not asked again.
            Later that evening, I opened the envelope and scanned through the short letter. Its significance took time to sink in. ‘Oh, God,’ I murmured. Sally looked up from her book sharply.
            ‘Something wrong?’
            ‘No … well, yes. If aunt Mavis did kill him, then I think I know where she dumped his body.’
*  *  *
The two police officers leaned cautiously over the crumbling brickwork of the parapet and gazed into the well. We’d had to fight our way through the brambles to reach it. I hadn’t been near the place since my encounter there with uncle Tod, so many years before. Yet an irrational dread reared up inside me.
            ‘You OK sir?’ one of the officers asked me, looking up. ‘I can’t think there’s anything too bad down there. It’s pretty much full of trash.’
            I’d not expected to see the collection of old cardboard boxes, empty pain cans and assorted garden rubbish that nearly filled the well. It came to within a just a few feet of the parapet itself.
            ‘Any idea who threw it all in there?’
            I shook my head. ‘I’ve not come here here since I was a boy. My uncle made it clear that I wasn’t to go near it. Said it … it wasn’t safe.’
            He nodded. ‘He was right there.’
            ‘Well, whether you think his body is down there or not, if I’m going to have my aunt’s wishes honoured I’ll have to get it cleared.’
            ‘I take your point sir. It would be sort of … disrespectful to throw her ashes in among all that garbage.’
            There was the sound of a vehicle pulling up out in the road. The officers seemed to have expected it. ‘That’ll be forensics,’ one of them muttered. Two white garbed men came round the side of the house carrying heavy cases.
            ‘OK, sir. Best leave this to us now. If there are any … if there is anything under that lot, these guys will find out pretty soon.’
*  *  *
I’d never have the stomach to do the job that the police did over the next few days. I didn’t ask what sort of state whatever was left of uncle Tod was in, and they didn’t tell me. I think that aunt Mavis must have got his body into his old sleeping bag before she wheeled it down to the well in a barrow, because they asked me if I could identify a piece of material they showed me. Lying across the body they’d found the corroded remains of a .410 shotgun, and a kitchen knife with a long, stainless steel blade.
            Things moved on quickly from there. Following an inquest the Coroner recorded a verdict of the unlawful killing of my uncle Tod, and while it was never fully established that my aunt was the one who had shot him, the police told me later that, so far as they were concerned, they weren’t looking for anyone else.
            I felt duty bound to carry out aunt Mavis’s wishes so far as her ashes were concerned, rather than have them interred in her husband’s grave. The well, even after it had been cleared, was not deep, and there was no water at the bottom. I couldn’t bring myself to just empty the little casket down it, and instead hired an expending ladder so that I could place the box with at least a measure of respect against the wall at its floor.
            I can’t deny that it was a scary experience. I’ve never liked the sense of being enclosed, especially in the dark. I’d taken a flashlight with me, and after I had placed the casket, it was in its light that I saw the two loose bricks in the wall of the shaft, just a foot or two from the bottom. As I reached to prize them out, a gust of wind blew through the tangled brambles that partly surrounded the well’s mouth. The tremulous hiss brought back, momentarily, a terrifying memory.
            ‘Uncle Tod’s snakes … ‘ I muttered as the loose bricks fell to reveal what was hidden behind them.
*  *  *
‘No. We’re still negotiating,’ Jim Denton told me in his office a few days after I had finally had the well filled in. I had asked him if the deal with Langton’s had been completed. ‘They’re stalling, I think. In the end I’m afraid they’ll drive a hard bargain. But whatever it is, I’ll have to go through with it. Mary’s no better, you know.’
            ‘Jim – if I were able to offer you what Langton’s had originally proposed, would you be prepared to consider it?’
            He stared at me. ‘Davey – there’s nothing I should like more. But you told me you just weren’t in the running. What’s changed?’
            ‘My late lamented aunt was rather better off than I’d thought.’              

            My left hand dropped to my pocket. My fingers clasped the small canvas bag that lay in it, and felt the stones, hard and smooth, that it contained. Yes, my aunt had been better off than I thought. Or than she herself ever knew. Uncle Tod’s legacy of gemstones was too well hidden, too well guarded, even if the snakes were no more than his fabrication.
            Together Jim and I stood up and shook hands.
            ‘Consider it a done deal, Davey! Congratulations!’