I dedicate this to my adorable wife Jenni who tells me that in spite of myself she still loves me.
When I sat down and thought about writing this book I decided that it might be best if I got some of the other characters assembled in these pages to say what they remembered of these incredible events that occurred in 1989.
A big thank you goes out to Jenni Timms for her eagle-eyed help in editing this version.
Shakespir Copyright © 2016.
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
My contract work at Gatwick Airport should have seen me through the recession that decimated the construction industry. The banks were calling in their loans and overdrafts. Small businesses were dropping like flies. When my contract came up for renewal I hadn’t reckoned on my greedy foreman plumber, Mario, taking a sneaky peak at my figures and putting in a lower tender. It was down to him that I lost my business and my house.
Like baying hyenas my creditors moved in for the kill. I was now bankrupt and there was a repossession order on our house. Whilst I couldn’t stop them taking our home off us I wasn’t going to stand idly by and see the bailiff’s step in and strip it bare. I came up with a plan. I loaded everything I owned into a huge removal truck and then my family and me along with our two dogs and a couple of guinea pigs ran off to Devon.
Nine months later, the dream new life that we had hoped for had turned into a living nightmare. I had no job, we had no money, and we were falling apart. The coldest winter I could ever remember rolled in off Dartmoor and trapped us inside our rented moorland cottage.
I should have known moving to the industrial part of North Devon was never going to live up to our dream of living in a chocolate box cottage, near the sandy beaches and eating cream teas.
Broken, depressed and freezing to death I decided I’d had enough of the Victorian attitude of the bosses and the cold stares of the locals. We were going to move house again, this time to London.
The move should have been a textbook operation. I had planned it to so well, leastways I thought I had!
With no money for removal costs I press-ganged a few family members and a friend with a broken leg who owned a removal lorry into helping.
The removal crew, and myself possessed of more optimism than experience driving a convoy of vehicles that were either illegal or unroadworthy then set out on the most extraordinary journey anyone could imagine. You couldn’t make it up.
When one by one, four different police forces pulled over and detained each of the vehicles my convoy fell into disarray.
Disaster followed disaster: a flat tyre, a radio that caught alight, a shattered windscreen, a very overladen lorry, and a van with no less than eleven defects brought my convoy to a standstill. My kids, my wife my furniture, my two dogs and a couple of guinea pigs were now spread out over four English counties.
Ray Timms. 2016.
Here are few actual quotes from some of the people who have read. “The Move.”
“It’s hard to believe this really did happen.” Iris Pantaloon… My next-door neighbour.
“Had me in stiches.” Antonia Biscotti.… The nice lady who cuts my hair.
“Is he for real?”… The man who found it on a train.
“The Move” is a masterpiece.’’ …I think it was actually me that said that!
“I can’t wait for the sequel.” Ted Smedge… (What sequel?)
“Crikey, this is one of them books I wished I’d written?”… Ray Timms. Felpham.
To the best of my ability I have tried to recreate the events, locations, and conversations from memory. In order to protect the anonymity of real people I have disguised their names along with other recognisable characteristics. I have also disguised occupations, and places of residence. I offer no apologies for the occasional embellishment in the narrative inserted for no nobler reason than to make the story more interesting to write rather than any vainglorious intent to impress the reader. Furthermore, I make no apologies for any cognitive inaccuracies due entirely to the fog of time robbing me of certain truths.
Crawley Sussex. 1989. June 12. 8.32 A.M.
Keeping my back to the wall I inched my way to the window and eased back the edge of the curtain. I leapt back. Outside I could see the thickset frame of Paul Hardcastle, a man of limited expression and a shaved head that exposed a scar that might have been a full-frontal lobotomy. Notably, he was in possession of a large mole set dead centre of a Neanderthal forehead that I found almost impossible to ignore.
‘Open up Art.’ The familiar voice called out tiredly. ‘Don’t you think you and I are way beyond playing hide and seek?’
‘Which one is it?’ My wife asked in a hushed voice keeping out of sight of the roving eyes peering through the letterbox.
‘It’s Paul.’ I hissed.
The fist thumping resumed. I put my finger to my lips. Julie nodded.
‘I know you’re home Art.’ Paul yelled through the open flap.
I felt the hairs on my neck bristle.
‘Is he on his own?’ my wife’s lips spelled out.
I mouthed back. ‘Leroy’s with him.’
Julie and I were getting better acquainted with lip reading. The entire concept of Julie and I being on first name terms with our bailiffs was something I still couldn’t quite get my head around.
The hammering resumed, this time more insistent.
‘Come on Art…. Stop mucking about’. Paul shouted through the letterbox. ‘I saw the curtain move, and your car is on the drive you plank. I know the two of you are home’.
Looking sheepish, I opened the door. ‘Hi Paul… Leroy. Come in. Wanna a cuppa?’
‘Yeah, cheers Art.’ Said Paul stepping past me into the dining room and heading for an armchair. ‘Morning Julie.’ He added, nodding at my wife.
Leroy was about to say something.
‘Yeah, I know Leroy, you have two sugars, and a dash of milk… and before you say it, I know…squeeze the tea bag gently.’
I left Julie to keep an eye on the two bailiffs while I went out to the kitchen to make the teas. When I returned with a tray of steaming mugs I found Leroy, hands clasped across his belly snoozing in my armchair, his legs outstretched. I froze when I saw Paul was running the tips of his fingers across the surface of the huge oil painting hanging on the wall above the mantelshelf. Julie and I exchanged worried looks. I wished she’d listened when I warned her we should stash it away? Losing that would be a blow. The 4 foot, by 2 foot, woodland scene set in a gilt frame and painted by an English artist who I’d been told one day would be highly sought after, had cost us a small fortune when we bought it ten years back. It was supposed to be an heirloom for our three kids, but unless I manage to turn things around they’d inherit little more than our collection of bags-for-life.
‘Nice oil painting you have here Mr Blakely,’ Paul said leaning closer and ignoring the mug of tea I was waving under his nose. ’Must be worth a few bob.’
I fought the panic rising up inside me. I needed to remain calm. My mind was racing.
‘What that old piece of crap!’ I said finally, ‘It’s only a print Paul. You’ll get nothing for that. I bought it what… Last year? … In a charity shop as I recall… and I wouldn’t have paid more than a fiver for it mate. I reckon the frame is more valuable than the fake print.’
‘A fiver you say Art! You paid a fiver for it did you?’ Paul said finally taking the mug of tea from me. ‘A print you say Art?’
I shrugged. ‘Yeah. It’s only a print Paul. It’s easy to spot the difference between a print, and a genuine oil painting.’
‘Is it now? And you wouldn’t be trying to pull the wool over my eyes would you Art? Only look here….’ He said pointing.
I knew what he was about to illustrate, but having lied to him, I felt compelled to complete the charade. I leaned closer to look where he was pointing.
‘What am I looking at Paul?’
‘Here, see here, Art.’ The bailiff said running the tips of his fingers over the canvas. ‘The surface is rough, which is what you’d expect to find with a genuine oil painting.’
I straightened up. I really didn’t want to examine the damning evidence. I looked round at Julie who shrugged as if to say, you deal with it.
‘The thing is Art,’ the bailiff said reclaiming my attention, ‘if this were a print…. as you claim, wouldn’t the surface be nice and smooth?’
Paul was leaning over me, his eyes swiveling in their sockets fought to reclaim my attention from the mole on his forehead. I gulped loudly.
‘Dya wanna know what I think is going on here Art?’ Said Paul, his face dark and forbidding.
‘Er. What’s that Paul?’ I said angelically, looking down and taking a sip of my tea.
‘I think you might be trying to stiff me!’
I was on the verge of a full-blown panic when the mention of the rough surface, brought to mind a documentary I’d watched recently, one about fake art. Oversimplifying the situation and with little regard for the man’s intellect, I took a risk.
‘Hey Paul, ‘ I protested, ‘would I do that? I said frowning. ‘But, I take your point about the rough surface; but let me tell you how these things are faked. I’ve looked into it and this print, I said waving my hand dismissively, ‘is one of thousands knocked out by Moroccan villagers, who flog them to gullible tourists off the cruise ships,’ I held up my hand to silence Paul’s intended interruption, ‘If I may be permitted to finish please Paul…. The villagers pull off this scam by daubing a clear varnish over a print…. Quite clever I think, for poor uneducated folk…. hmm?’
I saw little evidence in Paul’s stare that he’d been taken in by my spiel. The mole on his forehead that I liked to imagine as a bullet hole, placed exactly where I imagined a sniper on a rooftop, might put a bullet hole, shifted a tad closer to his receding hairline when he frowned.
‘Hey.’ I said sounding weirdly Yiddish. ‘Paul, you and me, we’re buddies right? I wouldn’t dream of lying to you. My God Paul, you are way too smart for me to even think about trying a stunt like that.’
Paul glowered. ‘Scouts honour Art?’
‘Hey you got it buddy.’ I said luring the bailiff away from the painting with the biscuit tin.
Other than Leroy’s rumbling snores, the room had gone quiet. Julie and I were sitting side by side on the sofa cradling our mugs of tea and exchanging worried glances, while Paul, hands clasped behind his back and motionless, stood before the fireplace staring up at the wooded glade in the gold frame.
I was startled when Paul spun around on his heels and yelled loud enough to cause me to spill tea onto the dark red carpet.
‘Hey. Leroy! Wake up.‘
‘What’s up?’ Leroy exclaimed jerking upright his eyeballs swiveling about. ’We taking the piano?’
‘What Piano? There is no piano! That’s at the next house dumb idiot. Drink your tea. Art made that especially for you, and did your Mum never tell you it’s rude to sleep in company? You apologise to these good people.’
The black bailiff, a good six and a half feet tall, rubbed his eyes and yawned.
I winced when Leroy did that knuckle-cracking thing that always made the end of my willy twinge.
Unable to cope with the tension, Julie escaped to the bathroom that was located at the end of a short corridor off the dining room.
Leroy had drained his cup and Paul seemed to have ended his fascination with my painting. I just wanted the pair of them gone.
I held my breath when Paul headed for the front door.
‘We better be going Art. Thanks for the tea.’
Quick as a flash, I held the door open. Leroy was the first to leave. Paul looked back. His eyes had glazed over. With not a word and taking me by surprise, he brushed past me and headed back to the painting.
Leaving the front door ajar and Leroy yawning under the porch, I hurried to catch up with the bailiff who, bent at the waist, was now investigating the artist’s signature with the tips of his fingers. He was frowning when he looked around at me.
‘Hmm, varnish you say Art… and this was done by Moroccan villagers you reckon.’ said Paul. ‘Clever you reckon eh?’
There followed one of those awkward interludes when anything could happen.
Paul straightened up to his full height, a good eight inches taller than I and glowered down at me. I needed a wee. He was close enough for me to smell stale tobacco on his clothes and on his breath. He winked one eye when he brushed past me to step through the doorway. I began to breathe again.
‘Thanks for calling by.’ I said anxious to close the door on them. When I looked down Paul had left one foot straddling the threshold. He was looking back at the painting and making small nodding motions with his head, reminding me of those toy dogs you see on the parcel shelves in the backs of moving cars.
It occurred to me I hadn’t taken a breath for a while and I reflected on how this might have substantially impacted on the origins of the developing headache. I was startled by the strength of the grip Paul took on my shoulder.
‘Are you all right Art? You look a little peaky?’
My eyes focused in on the bullet hole when I replied. ‘Me! No. I’m fine Paul, just a bit tired you know.‘
The court official nodded. Had I glimpsed a hint of compassion on the twist of his lips?
‘You and Julie have a nice day. I may call back next week and have another look at that Moroccan villagers print.’ he said flatly.
I stood on the porch and watched the bailiffs make their way up the driveway. They paused to look inside Julie’s Nisan Bluebird, and then inspected the bodywork. I shook my head. Paul knows full well the Inland Revenue earmarked it for seizure, so what the hell was he playing at?
Wasn’t there some other poor sod they could annoy? Paul glanced back at me before climbing in his BMW four by four. After they drove off my breathing settled into a normal rhythm.
When the phone rang I was on the sofa feeling sorry for myself. I looked scornfully at the instrument. Bloody hell! It had to be more people demanding money that I don’t have. When are these people going to understand I’m bankrupt…? I have no money and taking me to court again won’t change that fact. Sleep deprivation and chronic stress can make people a little weird and I felt unstable and likely to say anything when I picked up the phone.
‘Yes.’ I said. I’d stopped giving my name some while back.
The caller was my boss. My mood lifted to one of cautious relief. Smithy only ever rang when he had a job for me, and over the past two months those had become worryingly scarce.
‘Art. I want you to come up to my house right away.’
‘Why? I said noting the sharp edge to his normal soft Irish accent.
‘Just do as you’re told. We need to have a chat, a meeting as it were.’
Before I could press him further the line went dead. I stared at the receiver for a moment before making my way over to the bathroom door behind which I could hear the sound of water running. I tapped twice.
I heard a mumbled, ‘What?’
‘Julie,’ I called through the door, ‘that was Smithy on the phone. I have to go up to his house in Luton.’
I heard the bolt slide back. Julie pulled open the door with a toothbrush wedged in her cheek.
‘Why’d do ab do go do Luton?’
I shrugged. ‘I don’t know why. Smithy just said he wanted me up at to his house for a meeting. Julie I can’t talk to you while you’re foaming at the mouth like that, can you please rinse out your mouth?’
I waited while my wife slushed water around in her mouth and then looked away when she spat in the sink.
‘Don’t you think that’s a bit odd?’ She said wiping her face on a towel. ‘He must have told you what the meeting was about?’.
I was shaking my head. Julie interrogating me was distracting my thinking process.
‘Julie. I don’t know. ‘ I snapped and then forced myself to soften my voice. ‘He wouldn’t say over the phone.’
‘I don’t like the sound of this. It all sounds dodgy to me. Ring him… ask him what the meeting is about… and, while you’re talking to him, ask him when we’re going to get the five weeks pay he owes us…. Don’t take any crap from him….’
Of course Julie was right. Demanding that I go to Smithy’s house was unheard of. Like a Blackbird turning over autumn leaves searching for bugs, my wife, unlike me, would explore every conceivable aspect of any given situation before allowing herself to take the smallest risk. Whereas I, figuratively speaking, would blithely walk blindfolded across a motorway in the fervent belief that life was mostly benign.
I had never been to Smithy’s house. It had been described to me as a Spanish villa, set behind fifteen-foot high brick walls with horse’s heads atop pillared posts and electric gates.
There was supposed to be a gargantuan water feature in a huge courtyard, and the house was chock-a-block with furniture and artifacts, all assembled with the exquisite bad taste that Smithy was renowned for. I must admit my trip up to his n house was as intriguing as it was forbidding.
On the driveway ready to pull away I felt sorry for Julie her face lined with worry standing by the van window.
I turned the key in the ignition. She shouted above the engine noise.
‘Don’t take any crap from that welching Irish idiot, and don’t come back without your wages…. and drive safely.’
I nodded, smiled grimly, and set off.
I’d not troubled Julie with my fear Anglo-Irish Plumbing Corporation, Smithy’s self-made plumbing business, consisting of four plumbers, if you include Smithy, was in trouble. Two months back the work began to dry up. Over recent weeks I’d been sent out on a few jobs to carry out maintenance jobs, nothing more than half a day here and there. Not one new restaurant construction site. That, along with the fact that I’d had no wages for six weeks was sufficient cause for worries.
Until today I had hoped the contracts Smithy got from the international chain of fast food restaurants would see me through the toughest building recession of my generation.
In due course I came to realise that Smithy’s success in securing these contracts was due more to the exchange of thick brown envelopes in furtive hotel meetings than to any sense of business acumen he might have been in possession of.
Cruising along Acacia Avenue scanning the hedgerows on my left and thinking I must have missed my turning, I stumbled upon the cast iron sign: “Casa Grandiosa”. I braked hard and swung the van into a narrow potholed track and was immediately confronted by a much bigger sign: “Dogs Loose. Private Property. Keep Out”.
Grim-faced I bounced down the track until I came to a pair of black and gold wrought iron gates suspended between brick pillars topped with white painted horses heads. I wound down the drivers window and pressed the “Call” button on an intercom attached to a steel post. I had my head out of the window, ready to speak into the appliance when both gates began to roll back on iron rails. I kept the engine idling while my eyes gazed at a vast courtyard enclosed within white painted, fifteen-foot high brick walls, capped with Romanesque roof tiles. Blowing in the soft breeze were dozens of tall Yucca trees and Majorcan Palms.
Dead centre and dominating the gravel courtyard was the imposing water feature I had heard so much about. I was struck dumb by this flamboyant monstrosity, which in its very design exhibited an insight into the unstable mind of the designer. Arising awkwardly from a twenty feet diameter concrete basin, brim-full of stagnant water, were two more concrete basins of descending dimensions pierced by a central marble pillar with four wrap-around, water spewing dolphins, three cherubs, overflowing cornucopia, and finally at the summit a voluptuous naked female sitting unashamedly astride a massive python.
Of less interest to me at the time, but nevertheless noted, was the green algaecide water in the largest of the pools. As events unfolded that morning, the blanket of dense duckweed on the surface, proved to be a fortunate instrument of chance.
Driving the van around the fountain I parked up alongside the two battered looking white vans that belonged to Sean and Seamus, whose very presence here, ahead of me, served to reaffirm my worst suspicions. Something was up!
After reversing my one-year old Ford Transit into a space beside the two older vans I left my vehicle unlocked and headed for the Spanish style portico. I knew Smithy’s decision to give me the brand new van hadn’t gone down well with the other two plumbers, but having seen how they mistreat their vehicles you couldn’t blame him.
At the front door I stared into the overhead CCTV camera. When I pressed the doorbell it played the Irish National Anthem.
Smithy, early thirties, black hair gelled and quaffed, opened the door a few inches. He nodded at me before peering past me as if I had brought along some unwelcome guests. I turned to see where he was looking and saw nothing. I stepped past him into a white and gold marble, tiled hallway. He closed and locked the door behind me. With a hand motion he bade me follow him. There was little of note in the hallway other than a gold and white marble ormolu table. There were three sets of vehicle keys. Two of them had Ford key fobs and the other one; obviously Smithy’s had a Mercedes fob.
‘We’re meet’n in the kitchen.’ Smithy said over his shoulder leading the way across a lime green carpeted lounge. The shag-pile clashed badly with the huge gold and white overstuffed sofas that dominated the room. Dotted around the lounge, striking a variety of poses were huge porcelain figurines on marble podiums. A gallery of gold-framed paintings, (or prints), depicting scenes of racehorses, English landscapes, still life images of bowls of fruit, and vases of flowers hung on walls covered with red and gold flock wallpaper. In one corner stood the biggest TV I had ever seen.
A short corridor brought us to a Victorian style conservatory adorned with exotic plants that might have come out of Kew Gardens. Out the double patio doors, the landscaped gardens might have been a municipal park! Passing through another door we came to the kitchen that had been fitted out with handcrafted black walnut kitchen units. The worktops were granite. Here Smithy’s other two plumbers were sat behind an antique oak rectory table.
‘Hi Sean… Seamus.’ I said and nodded at their faces stony as gargoyles.
Despite the sun beating down through the apex glass celling I felt a cold shiver run down my spine. There was an atmosphere in here. What was it I was picking up… guilt, embarrassment, or… deceit?
Sean McClusky, a bull of a man with a shaven head and a nose arranged in a fashion should he chose to follow it, he would go round in circles. Seated next to him the tall, rangy Seamus, his cousin. His nicotine stained teeth could eat an apple through a tennis racket. Both now resumed their fascination with their mugs of cold tea.
‘Take a seat Art,’ said Smithy indicating the nearest of four chrome and black leather stools set under a granite breakfast bar.
I sensed some kind of Irish conspiracy hatched in my absence was afoot. I decided I’d wait for them to play their hand.
That whole business about Smithy looking nervously out of the door upon my arrival, the air of urgent anxiety about him, the way the work had dried up, and the abrupt way my wages had stopped, could only mean one thing! He’d gone bust. I, of all people could easily recognise the signs.
I knew what was coming. He wanted the van, that or, Sean, or Seamus was to be paid off with it. With the IRS about to confiscate my Nissan Bluebird, and with no means to purchase another one, that would be disastrous. I needed Smithy to pay me the wages he owed me, that plus my bonuses and my holiday pay, if he did that I would hand over the keys and move on. Take it on the chin as it were.
‘Art. I have some bad news for you.’
‘Yeah I guessed that Smithy. What’s up?’
‘As I’ve already explained to Sean and Seamus here, I’ve lost the business. Gone bust, to be sure.’
I screwed up my nose and looked around for the source of the smell. The others did likewise. Smithy yelled out, ‘Bridey, come in here and sort out this feckin dog of yours. He’s just shat in the feckin kitchen. We’re are trying to have an important meet’n in here.’
I couldn’t watch Smithy’s wife clear up the dog poo.
‘To cut to the chase,’ Smithy said after his wife had left the room, ‘I have no more work for yers. I’ve been made bankrupt.’
A glance at Sean and Shamus, arms folded; sat back in their chairs, faces expressionless, suggested I was missing something here?
‘That’s… that’s. Wow! That’s really bad news Smithy, but what about the wages that you owe us?’ I could see from Sean and Seamus’s manner there was no “us.”
That was when the penny dropped. I felt stupid. I’d believed Smithy when he told me it was a computer glitch at his bank that held up payment of our wages. He’s said none of us were being paid. I remember thinking at the time, why aren’t Sean and Seamus kicking up a fuss?
I saw what was going down… the three Irishmen had a plan to do a runner. When the bailiffs called round they’d have found the house stripped bare. The amount of stuff in the house Smithy would have needed all three vans. Crap!
I groaned. Sold privately, the one-year old Ford Transit, with no signwriting on it, would easily fetch ten grand.
Christ! I had my own plumbing tools were in the van. Even if I could carry them as far as the rail station, wherever that was, I had no money for the train fare. I saw the three Irishmen exchange sharp glances.
Things were moving too fast. I was running out of time and my options were non-existent. I didn’t even have a plan. I could see making an appeal to Smithy on humanitarian grounds would be futile. Fact…I had walked into a trap. Sean and Seamus were here to add a physical element to Smithy’s plot. If I fancied spending a little time in the local A&E I could put up some resistance. Instead, I decided on a course of action that involved my shoulders sagging as if in defeat.
‘How about my holiday pay and the bonuses you owe me, Smithy?’ I said. ‘Do I at least get that?’
‘It’s all gone boyo,’ Smithy said shaking his head. ‘I’ve lost the business, the house, cars and furniture…. everything. All I got left is a few quid tied up in my Villa in Calla del Sol. You have no idea how I’m suffering here.’
Had he not been listening when I told him a year ago, how I’d gone bust, and endured every humiliation anyone could imagine? How could he stand there and say I’d no idea how that felt?
‘What are you going to do Smithy?’ I was stalling for time and indifferent to the reply.
‘Do? ….’ Smithy said grinning broadly. ‘Bridey and me, we fly out to Benidorm tonight.’
He must have seen my eyebrows arch.
‘I know what you must be tinking Art, but I truly have no money, just our airline tickets.’
‘So, you’re not able to let me have a few quid then?’
‘Aw. Wouldn’t that be a grand ting, ‘ Smithy said spreading his arms wide. ‘If only I could Art. You see every penny I have is tied up overseas you know? Fer a rainy day, if yer know what I mean?’
Rainy days! Oh I knew about rainy days all right. I’d seen nothing but, rainy days.
‘I’ll have to take the keys to the van off you Art.’ He said holding out his hand. ‘The vans belong to the tax people now.’
There it was. The scam exposed. Not only was the wily Irishman not prepared to pay me my dues; he would see me hitchhiking my way back to Sussex carrying all my tools!
I could feel my blood heat up.
‘Aw thanks a bunch Smithy,’ I snapped. ‘And how the hell am I supposed to get back home? I don’t even have the train fare and all my tools are in that van.’
Smithy was staring out through the patio doors at his huge landscaped garden.
‘That’s a real shame Art but frankly, it’s not my problem. Sean and Seamus have lost their vans too. The tax people are calling round in the morning to collect the lot. I don’t have much time.’ He nodded at his two Irish henchmen who got to their feet. Clearly this meeting was over.
The scraping of their chairs on the marble tiled floor, like nails across a chalkboard, jarred my jangling nerves. I backed up two paces.
The three of them looked as if they would relish the idea of throwing me off the property. I needed to come up with a plan in the next five seconds.
‘Lets not be hasty here boys,’ I said holding up the palms of my hands, ‘if the three of us was get into a fight a lot of stuff in here is gonna get busted.’ Smithy grinned. He wasn’t falling for my pathetic bluff and may even have wanted that.
‘Give me the keys Art,’ he snarled holding his hand and waggling his fat Irish fingers. ‘No one need get hurt.’
‘Do as he says Art, we don’t want to have to hurt you.’ Said Sean flexing his broad shoulders.
Seamus exposed a row of gravestone teeth and sidled up alongside him.
I was so angry I might have had a go! Somehow through the red mist an improbable idea presented itself to me. It was a plan of sorts but not one you would put money on.
‘Okay,’ I said wearily, ‘but let me get my stuff out of the van.’
‘Sure.’ Said Smithy. ‘We’ll give yer a hand.’
‘No. That’s okay, ‘ I said a little too brusquely. Them coming with me would have screwed up my half-baked plan. ‘I can manage. You guys wait here. I’ll only be two minutes.’
The three Irishmen exchanged looks. I saw Smithy shrug. Dumb idiot I thought.
When I went out to the hall I kept my hand on the van keys inside my trouser pocket.
If I could get as far as the front door without Smithy and the others them following me I might just pull this off. I fought off the urge to run.
Out in the hallway my heart seemed to be straining at its mountings. I glanced back over my shoulder. I could hear their mumbled voices back in the kitchen… so far so good. I went over to the hall table and grimacing I picked up the three sets of keys.
With a final backward look I went over to the front door. Crap! I remembered Smithy had locked it. I looked at the bunch with the Mercedes key fob. There was only one key on the bunch that looked as if it might be a door key. In my panic to unlock the door I dropped all three sets of keys on the tiled floor. I could hardly believe the racket they made. I froze. They must have heard. While my hands fumbled for the keys I kept my eyes on the arched opening that led off the lounge. I gathered up the keys.
The voices in the kitchen had stopped. In my head I saw Smithy hold a sausage-shaped finger to his lips.
Cautiously, I straightened up and screwing up my nose I slid the key in the lock and turned it anti-clockwise. There was a dull thunk. I had just slipped off the security chain, when upraised voices out in the kitchen made me go rigid. The sound of chairs being thrown aside ended my vacillation. I threw open the front door and sprinted across the gravel driveway. Three paces from the water feature I threw the keys off the hall table into the murky green depths of the deepest pool. Then whilst tugging my van keys out my trouser pocket I sprinted across the gravel drive headed for my van.
Smithy, cursing, led the charge after me. Luckily I hadn’t locked the driver’s door. The passenger door and the rear doors were already locked. It was this that saved me, that and the engine fired up first turn of the key.
The first thing they did was to try and pull the doors open. Smithy yelling and cursing was at my door; Sean was beating on the glass of the passenger door, while Seamus was tugging at the rear doors. With little regard to their fingers that kept hold of the door handles I shot off. Oddly I was giggling. It must have bee the adrenalin.
Recognising I was about to escape in a switch of tactics the trio of plumbers raced back to the fountain hoping to find their keys. Sean skidded to a halt at the fountain– Seamus, not the brightest of people crashed into him and very nearly knocked him into the algae covered water. Smithy then barged into Seamus. This three plumber pile-up caused Sean to be catapulted into the slimy pool coming up gasping for air and covered in duckweed. ‘Did you find the keys?’ Smithy said, ‘No, ‘said Sean, ‘I wasn’t looking. I almost drowned.’ Well don’t just stand there,’ Smithy barked at the sopping wet plumber waist deep in water, ‘find the fekking keys.’
I saw all this through the wing mirror. I laughed out loud when the electric gates rolled back.
The last sight I had of Smithy and his plumbers was of the three of them running about like headless chickens and cursing at me from behind the twenty-foot high wrought iron gates that were now resolutely shut.
I thumped the dashboard more from relief than hysteria.
By the time Smithy had netted the keys from the depths of the pool I was heading south on the M1.
It’s funny how things sometimes work out for the best. I always thought it odd that Smithy never asked me for my home address. I doubted he kept records of anything. With Smithy fleeing the country by the following morning he was never going to get his van back.
Heading south on the M25 a very unsettling thought hit me. Have I stolen the van? Most likely the Inland Revenue have it earmarked for repossession. Quite possibly I have made myself a fugitive of the law. That didn’t feel good: On the other hand, a helpful voice in my head suggested: it was reasonable to argue as a lawful, unpaid creditor, I’d be entitled to seize goods and chattels in lieu of unpaid dues? Either way, I was desperate enough not to give a crap!
After a fretful two-hour drive home battling through rush-hour traffic, I pulled onto the drive of Holly Cottage with no recollection of ever having crossed a single roundabout or gone through a set of traffic lights. I paced the drive for a good five minutes rehearsing what I was going to tell Julie.
Julie’s face blanched. Interspersed with tears, I faced recriminations, blame, ranting, finger stabbing and her applied layman’s psychoanalysis of my capacity to walk and breathe consecutively. This continued until, spent of rage and energy, Julie finally handed the problem back to me.
‘You’d better come up with a plan or I’m going home to mother.’
‘There’s no need for that Julie, ‘I pleaded. ‘Just let me do the worrying. I’m working on it. You know me…’
‘Only too well.’ she interrupted and nailed me with one of her looks. When she turned and made for the stairs. I groaned inwardly.
‘I’m going to my room.’ She said a euphemism for my immediate banishment to the sofa.
At some point common sense prevailed. The marital injunction lasted until the evening by which time the urgency of our situation compelled Julie to recognise that if we didn’t pull together on this we were sunk.
If it hadn’t been for the telephone call that I made the following morning to an old musician friend, someone I’d not seen or spoken to in over a year, the plan I subsequently put together, and intended to present to Julie with the clear and certain knowledge that it if it worked she would forevermore insist that it was her idea, and if it didn’t, the fault was mine.
‘Julie, I’ve been thinking,’ I said. ‘Please I need you to hear me out. Sadly, in about three, or four weeks time our house will be repossessed. We can choose to sit back and do nothing and then become homeless with the prospect of having to spend the next few years dodging the likes of Paul and Leroy and deal with the constant threat of being taken to court… that’s one option!’
‘Go on,’ Julie said tearing off a piece of toast with her teeth.
‘Here’s my plan. We should move out before we get thrown out. We could take Smithy’s van, which means wherever we settle I can at least find work as a plumber. You can keep your car, we take off before the Inland Revenue can take it off us.’
Julie chewed on the piece of toast and then swallowed noisily before she spoke, ‘So that’s your great idea, ‘Julie said waving half a slice of toast in the air. ‘We simply move out?’
‘Why not? Yeah,’ I said with a shrug. ’We hand the house keys over to our mortgage company, we pack up our stuff and go rent a house, someplace nice, someplace where our creditors wont find us.’
‘Think about what you’re saying Art, ‘ Julie said. ‘Without a job without a deposit, you wont be able to rent a friggin tent.’
‘Ah,’ I said pointing one finger in the air. ‘If you’d let me finish: yesterday I called up Dave, you remember him, the skinny guitarist in the function band I used to play in, the one who moved to Cornwall, never got any money to buy a beer. I told him I was thinking of moving down his way and what did he think of my job prospects, and he said people down there are desperate for plumbers and as a drummer I would get loads of work. He reckons moving down there was the best thing he ever did.’
‘I am not moving to Cornwall Art.’ Julie snapped. ‘It’s hundreds of miles away.’
‘Hear me out a second.’ I said making calming movements with my hands. My wife hated changes to the extent that it took her three years to settle on a choice of sofa. ‘Dave said I could stay at his farmhouse for as long as it takes me to find a job and somewhere for us to live…’
‘Are you not listening? I’ve already told you,’ Julie interrupted. ‘I am not moving to Cornwall, so just drop it will you?’
‘I’m not thinking of Cornwall Julie.’ I said poised to expose my killer hand. ‘I am thinking of Devon.’
Julie’s eyes widened, the stern lines around her mouth softened. For Julie, any mention of the county where her folks came from and the place where we always loved to holiday was almost hypnotic. This was encouraging, but softly-softly-catchee- monkey.
‘Think about the lovely holidays we had in Devon, when the kids were little, all those ice creams, layered with Devon cream, going in search of thatched tearooms to eat cream teas. Julie, it’d be like being on a permanent holiday.’ I enthused. ‘Also, by not leaving a forwarding address the likes of Paul and Leroy would never bother us again.’
Julie’s eyes had glazed over.
‘Why don’t I call Dave right away and set it up? I can drive down there in the Transit. I’ll use Smithy’s petrol card to pay for the diesel. Dave reckons I’ll earn a fortune down there.’
The thought of us making a fresh start in glorious Devon, free at last from the bailiffs hammering at our door, the threatening phone calls and the nasty letters, was altogether too alluring.
I wasn’t stupid, Devon wouldn’t have escaped the ravages of the recession that had destroyed the building industry, I could expect to earn less down there but from what Dave had said, there were plenty of cottages to rent at half the price we’d have to pay in Sussex. Also the cost of living was cheaper and with the Council tax was a good deal less. All in all I calculated we would be far better off and, as a bonus we would be living in glorious Devon. First I would need to find a job, and then I could go in search of a cottage to rent.
Happily, Julie regarded my plan as workable. Finally she nodded.
‘Two weeks you say? You will stay with Dave for two weeks and in that time you will find a job and then somewhere for us to live?’
‘Give me two weeks, ‘I said. ‘I’ll find work and a home for us to live in. It’ll be great Julie.’
When I rang Dave he was more than happy for me to stay with him on his farm while I looked for work. Next, I packed what I needed for a two-week trip and dropped my bags in the hall.
I went up to my boy’s bedrooms to wake them and tell them the news. Robbie grunted his approval while Daniel sat bolt upright.
‘I want to come with you.’ Daniel said looking at his mum, her, arms folded, leaning against the doorframe.
I frowned and ruffled his hair. I said, ‘that would have been good, but you have to go to school.’
‘Take the boy with you.’ Julie said testily.
I stared at her. Other than when they were sick, the rule was, our kids never took time off school.
‘He’s going to need a new school anyway… when we move … isn’t he?’ Julie said it as a statement of fact.
She gave me that cold-eyed Cobra look, I wondered if she thought I planned to run off and abandon her and the kids, as if I would! Maybe that was why she wanted me to take the boy along. Down in the hallway, Daniel hugged his Mum.
‘Right, I’ll be off then Julie.’ I said offering her a kiss. She turned her cheek to me. It had come to that.
Hungry, low on diesel and almost two hundred miles from our destination I pulled into a service station on the M5. After topping up with fuel, Daniel and I wandered into the café. For the time of day it was surprisingly quiet. The overpriced food looked and proved to be unappetizing. I left Daniel to finish his meal while I went in search of a pay phone.
It had been bothering me that I hadn’t actually asked Dave if it was okay for Daniel to stay over too. Dave’s reaction was what I had hoped.
‘That’s absolutely fine. While you’re out looking for work perhaps your boy would like to help out on the farm?’
Back on the road I mentioned this to my son who spoke of little else for the remainder of the drive down to Cornwall.
Leaving Julie behind to deal with the bailiffs, the demanding phone calls and the post tore at my conscience but there was little else I could have done, and ten minutes after our goodbye at the gate the guilt had vanished.
If I hadn’t been paying close attention and had slowed to 30 mph I might have passed right through the tiny village of Blepton, ten miles south of the North Cornwall border.
I was on the lookout for the landmarks Dave had mentioned on the phone. I sighed with relief when I saw the 12th c church. A hundred yards further on was the village hall next to the 1914-1918 Great War memorial set on a grassy knoll. Just past this I saw the public phone box he mentioned. I almost missed the wooden sign, half buried in the weeds, the paint peeling: “Pear Tree Farm.” I turned into a narrow potholed lane that wound down to the dilapidated farmhouse and was met by a barking Jack Russell Terrier.
I grabbed Daniels arm.
‘Don’t get out yet.’
Just then I heard Dave yelling.
‘Digger…away.’ The dog, baring his teeth backed off at his master’s appearance.
It was apparent from the stained and threadbare boiler suit and different coloured wellies Dave wore that he had slipped into the lifestyle of the typical Cornish smallholder.
With his usual smile, all teeth and little sincerity, Dave approached my side of the van.
After I introduced my son to Dave the three of us trooped round to the rear of the house and went in through an open back door. This led directly into an untidy kitchen, where cats, too many to count, skulked on every surface.
A woman I guessed was aged about thirty-five had to be the one that Dave left his wife and five kids for.
‘Welcome to Pear tree farm, Art and Daniel isn’t it? I’m Marianne,’ she said dusting flour from her hands on her pinafore. ‘The dog is Digger… we call him that because he loves digging in rabbit holes.’
‘I expect you’re both dying for cup of something after such a long journey? Tea, coffee, orange squash?’
I looked around at Daniel who said, ‘Orange squash please.’
‘A cup of coffee would be great, please, white no sugar. Thanks Marianne.’
Had I known the milk was unpasteurized goat milk I would have opted for the cold drink.
Daniel and I were sat at a heavily stained kitchen table with cats like marauding Barbary apes using the open kitchen window as a means of exit and entry when Dave explained how the farm had been whittled down over the years. These days it wasn’t exactly a farm, more of a smallholding. Apart from the five-acre field that he kept Angora goats on for their wool, the rest of the land was rented out to a local farmer for two slaughtered lambs annually.
When I questioned this medieval bartering practice Dave explained that people in these parts frequently exchanged services rather than use cash.
After eating homemade scones and picking the crumbs off our plates Daniel and I followed Marianne up a flight of stairs into to what she called the “Guest bedroom”. I was relieved to find part of the house, unlike the rest of the crumbling ruin had been substantially renovated and surprisingly it had an en-suite shower and its own W.C.
We left our bags on the floor intending to unpack them later and went back downstairs and caught up with Dave and Marianne.
Dave said, ‘ would you like to take a tour of the rest of the house and the outbuildings?’ I said, ‘yes that would be nice.’
I was soon disoriented by the confusing shape and dimensions of the two hundred year old farmhouse that over the years had been subjected to randomly added rooms with no apparent concern for planning rules or aesthetics.
I chose not to point out the disturbing evidence of subsidence. Instead I made appreciative remarks that tested the limit of my imagination and my forthright nature.
Back in the kitchen, a room that was clearly the hub of the dwelling, I thought it appropriate to convey to our hosts my genuine appreciation for us being given the best room in the house.
‘It’s really nice of you both to allow us stay in that lovely guest bedroom Dave.
Dave’s big cheesy grin widened. He was wringing his hands when he replied.
‘I’m glad you like it. Actually, your room would normally be rented out as bed and breakfast…’
I was immediately alerted to the subterfuge of its meaning.
I stared hard at him for a moment formulating an appropriate response.
Not for a moment had I considered that I might have to pay Dave B&B rates but my conscience wasn’t going to let me off the hook.
‘Then I must pay the going rate for our stay Dave. That’s only fair.’ I said hoping he would have none of it. Dave was shaking his head.
‘Gosh Art I can’t let you do that. That would cost you fifty pounds a night!’ Dave protested. ‘No, you can have it for forty quid a night.’
I winced before I smiled.
Our tour of the rest of the rest of the house was a bit of an eye-opener. I found it hard to understand how this fit and able couple could live in such squalor! They didn’t even attempt an apology for the state of the place.
I was shown inside the slaughter shed. I was taken aback when Dave explained the water that dribbled from the swivel spout above the kitchen sink that had a habit of coming off in your hand was pumped up from the well situated in the back corner of the room. I peered inside the hole and saw an ancient electric pump attached to a piece of rope sitting in a stew of pigeon crap and vermin droppings.
Marianne explained that she did the cooking on a wood burning Aga. I nodded. That would explain the absence of mature trees and the lopped off tree stumps.
Finally we went back out in the yard where twenty or so cats lay sunning themselves on every available rooftop.
Dave looked confused when I asked him did he get many wild birds round here. The concept of irony was lost on him.
After this short survey of the untidy outbuildings Dave led us up a hillside that had been denuded of vegetation by a gaggle of free-range Angora goats. At the summit we came to wire pen that enclosed a motley collection of chickens busy pecking at dry clay. To the right of this and some distance away was a larger pen where two pigs with their snouts over the shabby gate became excited at our presence.
Daniel made straight for those.
‘D’ya like the pigs Daniel?’ Dave called out.
‘They are so cute,’ my son said rubbing the snout of one of them. ‘What are their names?’
Dave shrugged. ‘They don’t have any. You can name them if you like.’
‘I’ll call them Pinky and Perky.’ Daniel said looking back at me and smiling.
‘Would you like to take over feeding them?’ Said Dave.
Daniels eyes widened.
‘You need to give them a bucket of pignuts each morning and then again in the evening and you must refresh their water every day. What d’ya say? You want the job?’
‘Wow! I’d love that,’ Daniel enthused. ‘Thanks Dave.’
Leaving my son to make friends with the pigs Dave and I headed back down the hill and into the farmhouse.
Having something to occupy his time saved me from worrying about Daniel getting bored while I went out job-hunting.
The job hunting wasn’t going well. It soon became clear that Dave had grossly exaggerated the job prospects down here. There was very little money around and very few jobs and hardly any building sites that might employ a plumber. With frustration growing at every knockback, the days passed unrewardingly. There were no working bands looking for drummers, and rather than pay plumbers, folk down here would barter to get their jobs done. That wouldn’t pay the rent. I spoke to a carpenter who was paid in hay for his three horses in return for hanging a new door.
The days flew by and having to tell Daniel each night that I’d made no progress in finding work was dispiriting.
On the Wednesday evening of the second week in a terse phone conversation with Julie she accused me of: “Sitting on your arse having a fine holiday with your mates”.
Naturally, she was upset and disappointed. I understood that. I was too. I felt that I had let her and my family down.
Unless good fortune, a commodity shy in my life, paid me a visit in the next forty-eight hours I would be returning home on Saturday to a conversation with my wife that I wasn’t looking forward to.
When I got back to Pear Tree farm, late afternoon, exhausted and not particularly enamoured by the prospect of yet another of Marianne’s unremarkable, and almost indigestible dumpling stews, Daniel with Dave were waiting in the yard. Dave had on his fixed smile.
‘Any luck Art. He called out. I turned off the engine and leapt down from the cab.
‘Only bad luck.’ I said locking the van.
‘Hey Daniel, are you not going up to feed the pigs?’ Dave said to my son who was stretching his fast growing limbs.
‘Course I am, I’m going now.’ Daniel said heading off up the hill with a bucket of pignuts.
Dave and I were still chatting when Daniel returned with the bucket still full. He had a worried look on his face.
‘What’s up Daniel’? I said.
Dropping the bucket at his feet, he said to Dave, ‘where are Pinky and Perky? I’m sure I shut the gate this morning. I hope they haven’t escaped.’
‘They’re in the shed.’ Dave said with that stupid grin on his face, pointing over his shoulder. ‘Come, I’ll show you.’
There was something in the way Dave said it made alarm bells ring. I was worried even before Daniel had got as far as stone hut with its sagging slate roof.
I was still trying to work why I was feeling antsy when grinning like the Cheshire cat, Dave pushed open the rustic door and led my boy inside. I should have trusted my gut feelings. I should have moved quicker.
I heard my son gasp. When he emerged from the building that Dave called the slaughterhouse his face had gone ashen. He looked as if he had seen a ghost. Through the open door I saw the freshly slaughtered carcasses of the pigs, their blood draining into a gully on the floor.
The way I glared at our host dissolved the sick smile on his face. Dave really couldn’t understand how we didn’t find his sick joke funny.
Back in our room and keeping our voices low, Daniel and I talked about the incident with the pigs. We decided, as townies, perhaps we had no right to judge country folk on how they did things. Although I was still angry with Dave I decided to put the matter behind us and move on.
When we went back down to the kitchen for supper, yet another lamb stew, oddly Dave and Marianne were nowhere to be seen. I chose not to say anything but I could sense the tension about the place. Daniel and I washed up the dishes and tidied the kitchen a bit, yet not so much it might offend our hosts, although I was now beginning to get so I didn’t care what they thought. I guess I was still mad at Dave. It was as if our stay here had run its course. I was devoid of hope. We had failed in our mission. Tomorrow we would say goodbye to our hosts and settle up anything we owed and then drive back to Sussex, and explain to Julie, it didn’t work… sorry.
We were heading up to our room when Daniel and I came upon Marianne emerging from a room that I now realised we had not seen inside when they showed us round the house. As if I had caught her doing something bad Marianne’s face bloomed. Before she had time to slam and lock the door my eyes locked onto the dull grey eyes of an old woman who was seated in an armchair. My mind was reeling. How could this be? How could we have been living under the same roof as her for two weeks and not known this old woman had been living here, and why had Marianne and Dave not said anything about her living here? She had to be his mother; the one he said had died when he sold her house in Worthing.
Without a backward glance or a word of explanation Marianne hurried off.
I stood at the door for what felt like ages as my mind wrestled to free itself of the look of fear on that old woman’s face. A cold shiver ran down my spine. I looked around at Daniel and before he could utter the words I saw forming on his lips I pulled him away and we went back to our room, where at my insistence we wouldn’t discuss the old woman, arguing it was none of our business. I could sense this incident was going to haunt my sleep that night and subsequently change our plans.
Although Daniel, in the bed next to mine appeared to sleep soundly, I wasn’t sure he did.
The luminous hands on the bedside clock showed 2.45 when soaked in my own sweat I sat bolt upright. In a dream I had seen the old woman on her hands and knees, her fingertips bloodied, clawing at the locked door. I leapt out of bed. The cold air hit me. I paced the room thinking and all the time worried that I might wake Daniel.
The cry of a screech owl sounding like a distraught child added to my already agitated state. Crossing the room to the window, I unlatched it and pushed it open as far as it would go. Leaning on the sill gulping in air I stared up at a blood red August moon in an otherwise featureless sky. I shuddered and wrapped my arms across my chest. I looked back to Daniel and saw the blackened corpse of my shadow splayed out on his bed. Not for the first time I wondered if this house had been built on a plague pit.
The hours of darkness seemed interminable. Finally a soft pink curtain rose through a mist on the distant hills. The sight sharpened my senses and settled my plans.
I was downstairs and sipping hot tea when Daniel joined me around seven-thirty.
‘We should ask about the old women?’
‘Because I `am worried about her I dreamed…’
‘Let it drop.’ I interrupted. ‘We’ll be going home tomorrow. What goes on here is none of our business.’
Daniel was right of course, but after the incident with the pigs, I was still too angry with Dave to confront him about anything.
The atmosphere at the breakfast table hadn’t improved from how things were at supper last night. Although I couldn’t see the door to the old woman’s room from the kitchen it didn’t stop me from imagining it, or the sight of old woman kept hidden away. Impulsively and in defiance of my own advice I decided I couldn’t let the matter lie.
Pausing with a piece of toast halfway to my mouth I looked unblinking at Marianne and leveling my voice asked shortly.
‘Who was that old lady in the room?’
I saw Marianne and Dave exchange glances. Dave forked food into his mouth while Marianne looked down into her bowl of porridge as if the answer may lie there.
‘Oh, her,’ Marianne said flicking her eyes up at me and then looking away sharply ‘that’s Moira. She is Dave’s Mum. The poor old thing has dementia. I’m her registered carer, being an ex-nurse and all.’
‘Best she’s left alone.’ Dave interjected. ‘The old dear can get very confused and she doesn’t take kindly to strangers.’
I nodded. ‘Hmm. I can imagine.’
Dave’s explanation didn’t stack up. Before quitting the band to move down here Dave had told me his mother had died and he bought the farm out of his inheritance. Now, having discovered that his mother was very much alive, I was left wondering how he had pulled this off.
I remember picking Dave up one night at his mother’s substantial detached bungalow in Worthing. I remember how she had waved at me from the door, and that had to be about a year after Dave had told me that his marriage was on the rocks. Somehow he had managed to get power of attorney over his mother’s estate, and then flogged the house and moved the poor woman down here, away from everything she knew, her grandchildren, and friends, and neighbours, her G.P and practically everything that gave her a sense of stability. As far as I could tell, I doubted he ever paid his mother a visit.
I now saw Dave in a different light. I knew he was mean with money. He never bought a drink at our gigs. What I was seeing now was a secretive opportunist with a disarming smile who had dragged his own mother down here to live the rest of her days in a tiny room after he had walked out on his wife and five kids to set up home with a nurse who was half his age.
All of a sudden I wanted to go home.
Friday: our last day Pear Tree Cottage was my last chance to pull off a miracle. If I didn’t find a job today I was done for.
I found it odd that Dave and Marianne had apparently decided not to join Daniel and I at breakfast and by the time we’d finished washing and drying the dishes we’d seen no sign of either of our hosts. Were they hiding from us, maybe from shame? Who knows? I put the matter aside to attend to more immediate affairs, such as find a job, and a house…. In one day!
Based on my experiences over the past two weeks I harboured little hope.
I’d made up my mind.
‘You’re coming with me today Daniel. I need you to bring me luck.’ I said heading for the door.
At the top of the potholed farm drive, I turned left and set out along the leafy lane passing the Great War memorial under a glorious blue sky, one that lifted my spirits and fostered hope.
‘Where we going Dad?”
‘You know it then?’
‘Yeah. Of course, ‘Daniel said. ‘We drive through it whenever we go anywhere.’
Oxhampton was one of those towns that folk drive right on through unless they needed to pick up provisions in one of the handful of shops or to use the public toilets.
‘So why are we going there?’
‘Hopefully, to find me a job.’
The grey slightly soiled town of Oxhampton was probably the last town I would have wanted to live in but having haemorrhaged all hope in the market towns of Bude, Bideford, Braunton, and then back through South Molton, there were few places left to check out.
Oxhampton looked its usual sleepy self when I pulled into a bank of empty parking bays outside a museum that only opened on Saturdays. Across the way I caught sight of a row of terraced houses halfway constructed. Daniel saw it too.
‘There’s a building site over there dad. You could ask there if they need a plumber.’
I shook my head and pointed through the windscreen. ‘Look. The walls are not even up. It’ll be weeks, maybe months, before they’ll have need of a plumber…. But I can go ask. ’
I had tramped onto quite a number of building sites now, both in Cornwall and North Devon and I wondered how many Health and Safety Officers were employed down here.
Stumbling across open ditches, heaps of red clay, broken bricks and discarded timber, I came across two brickies bent over in a trench laying concrete foundation blocks. Nearby lounged a labourer leaning on a shovel. The bricklayers looked up at my approach.
‘Hi guys.’ I said smiling. ‘Sorry to hold you up only I’m a plumber looking for work. Is there a plumbing contractor on site?’
The brickies resumed laying blocks as if they hadn’t heard me.
‘I just need a name.’
Keeping his head down the one who was almost too fat to work in a trench spoke as if his voice had emanated from the crack of his arse.
‘We got our own plumbers in these parts.’
Not for the first time my south London accent was an issue. The response I got was typical of the mostly hostile reaction I’d been getting from builders down here.
I guessed the shortage of work in these parts, which appeared to be more acute than Sussex, was causing folk to regard the likes of me as job thieves.
I thanked them and began picking my way across the rubble-strewn ground when the brickie’s labourer, who up till now had said nothing, caught up with me.
‘Hey just a sec.’
I stopped and looked around at the sound of a voice that wasn’t from round these parts.
After a backward glance to check his mates weren’t watching he said.
‘You could try the site over at Herons Close. I hear the plumbing contractor on there is struggling to keep up with the work.’
Before I could thank him he hurried off.
Back in the van Daniel gave me an anxious look.
‘No luck Dad?’
‘No nothing.’ I replied. I was surprised at how despondent I sounded. Straightening my back I quickly added. ‘I did get the name of another site we could try though.’
‘Come on Dad.’ Said Daniel. ‘Chin up. Where’s your usual chipper self?’
I looked around at my boy and grinned. When he thumped my shoulder I turned the key in the ignition and yelled. ‘Yeah! Let’s get this show on the road.’
Heron Close was easy enough to find and after parking on the roadside I instructed Daniel to stay in the van. The building site wasn’t huge, maybe, around thirty detached houses. With no doors or windows fitted I was able to wander through the dwellings that were little more than shells.
One by one I walked through the houses looking for someone to speak to. The place seemed deserted. The unplastered internal walls and bare concrete floors with not a stick of plumbing installed indicated to me the plumber was either on his way or these houses were going to be way behind schedule. I began calling out.
‘Hello! Anyone about?’
The site had a slight incline and after emerging through the back of the last house I came to a site hut. The door was closed. I could see a yellow light through steamy windows.
I approached the door festooned with health and safety notices that people down here took little notice of, knocked loudly and pushed the door inwards. Inside found three labourers wearing muddy boots and woolen beanie hats reading newspapers and eating sandwiches from lunchboxes. They were seated upon wooden seats knocked together from disused pallets. Their faces registered surprise.
I dismissed out of hand the unworthy thought I should try to disguise or soften my London accent. I smiled at them.
‘Sorry to trouble you lads, I’m a plumber looking for a start. Is the plumbing contractor on site?’
The three faces looked at each other in turn before one spoke up.
‘Only wish ee wur. Plaaaasterers being eld up, tilers an aawl.’
“I could make a start right away.’ I said feeling as if I might just have an edge here. ‘If you could give me the name and the telephone number of the plumbing firm, I could give them a ring.’
The labourer, more lenient to my enquiry than either of his companions, provided me with a name and telephone number.
Back in the van Daniel sensed my suppressed excitement.
‘What’s up Dad?’’
‘I got a name and telephone number of the plumbing firm, and they are way behind the work. Let’s keep our fingers crossed eh?’
From a phone booth in town, I called up the number. After several rings a woman’s voice, thick with that local dragging of vowels said.
‘Hello. 541786…. Bowlers.’
‘Oh. Hello. Is Lionel Bowler there please?
‘No ee aint yer. Moy usband be at werk. I’m massers Bowler. Can I assist ee?’
‘Sorry to trouble you Mrs Bowler, I’m a plumber looking for work and I wondered if your husband was looking for one?’
‘I wouldn’t know nuffen bout oo he does take on and oo he don’t, but if yer like to call back at one o clock, e’ll be ere fer his lernch.’
I checked my watch it was a quarter past ten. I grimaced. What was I to do in the meantime, sit in the van and chew my nails? ‘Thank you Mrs Bowler,’ I said. ‘I will definitely call back at one.’
A tour of Oxhampton shops killed twenty minutes, and a further hour was taken up feeding the squirrels bits of cheese sandwiches bought in the local supermarket.
‘What do you think Dad. Will he take you on?’ Said Daniel stretched out on a grassy slope with his hands locked behind the back of his head
I shrugged and talked through a mouthful of sandwich. ‘Can’t tell. The way my luck is going… nope.’
One o clock, dead on the nail, I was back in the same phone box dialing up Bowler’s number. Two rings and a gruff male voice spoke in a manner that suggested he wasn’t enamoured of people interrupting his lunch break.
I decide his telephone manner needed some work done.
‘Hello Mr Bowler I’m Art Blakely. I rang earlier and spoke to your wife. I’m a plumber and I was wondering if by any chance you might have a vacancy?’
‘Yer not be local then? Bowler said.
Here we go again. Don’t tell me he is going to give me the brush off simply because I don’t have a Devon accent? I daren’t tell him I was living in Sussex, so I half-lied.
‘At the moment I’m living in North Cornwall, but plan to move to Oxhampton as soon as I find a job. Bit of a chicken and egg situation I’m in as it were. I’m fully qualified Mr Bowler, with twenty years experience. ’ I held my breath through a long silence.
‘You can do a proper job then?’
‘Oh of course, yes.’ I said keeping my fingers crossed. ‘I had my own business for thirteen years. There’s nothing I cant do as a plumber.’ The lengthy pause was agonizing. I could sense at any moment Bowler was going to give me a knock back. I could hear his steady breathing. He was weighing things up. This was a cautious man.
‘Where you be now?’ He said at long last.
‘I’m in Oxhampton.’ I said hoping not to expose my growing excitement.
‘Take down my address and you get yersalf ere before half past one and we’ll see.’
I scribbled down the address, thanked him and then hung up. While sprinting back to the van I checked the time on my watch. I had twenty minutes to find a tiny village called Polliston that I just hoped was shown on my AA route finder map.
Acacia Avenue was a curved tree-lined road of nineties-built bungalows set back beyond sloping lawns.
I parked up outside number three and turned to Daniel.
‘Wait here. This shouldn’t take long.’
‘Good luck Dad.’
I grinned at him before heading up a tarmacadam drive passing an elegant flowering cherry tree set dead centre of a manicured lawn strewn with confetti like pink and white petals.
At precisely twenty minutes past one, I rang the Bowlers doorbell and then discretely stepped back off the York stone porch. The man who opened the door was stick thin with sloping shoulders. Bowler’s shifty eyes examined me from head to toe.
Dressed in faded beige corduroy trousers held up with braces and a worn leather belt Bowler was indeed cautious, the epitome of belt and braces. The sleeves on his check shirt had been carefully rolled back to one inch above his elbows. On his feet he wore a pair of woolen carpet slippers with Velcro fastenings. I imagined his wife to be a woman who would without fail or delay, pour Toilet Duck around the rim of the toilet bowl before going to bed at precisely ten-thirty each night. Dinner on Fridays would be fish followed by Bramley apple crumble, and with unbending religiosity the washing chores were done on Tuesdays. Sex, an occupation that consumed ten minutes of Lionel Bowlers time would only ever take place in their darkened room around 9 pm every other Wednesday.
‘Go round to the garage.’ Bowler said flicking his head to one side and then closing the front door in my face. On the periphery of my vision I saw the lounge curtains twitch.
The job interview took place in Bowlers garage that was full of plumbing equipment, sanitaryware, lengths of plastic and copper pipes, and boxes full of connectors.
Lionel Bowler told me round here tradesmen don’t go to folk’s front doors! They go round the back! It was like being back in Victorian times.
Half an hour later, I bade Bowler good night and ran back to the Transit van where I woke Daniel.
Although Bowler and I had agreed to me taking over the plumbing work on the building site I’d visited earlier, when he outlined the terms of employment, I almost told him to stick it. The daywork rate was a pittance, almost an insult, and to add insult to injury I was also expected to provide my own van and pay my own fuel costs. Biting my tongue I agreed. When he ignored my proffered hand, I took that as a bad omen. I don’t care, who you are, or where you’re from, you shake hands on a deal.
‘How’d it go Dad?’
I gave him a smile and thumbs up. ‘I got a job. Crap money, but at least it’s a job.
‘We go find us somewhere to live.’
I was feeling happy … not ecstatic, because living on such a low wage was going to be a challenge. I kind of made it okay by convincing myself that once Bowler got to see how good a plumber I was, surely he would raise my wages.
I still had Smithy’s Transit van and his petrol credit card. I wondered how much longer I would be able to get away with using that. I disabled my guilt on the grounds that it was only a matter of time before I lost both. The card I was expecting to have refused any time now, which meant no more free fuel, and in due course the road tax on the Transit would expire, and with the van still in Smithy’s name, I could do nothing about that. Adding to my worries was the realisation that at any moment I might get pulled over by the police. Legally speaking it was the property of the Inland Revenue, who just hadn’t found it yet!
With arguably the toughest element of my mission completed I was now able to focus my energies on finding us a home, and thinking ahead, knowing that at some point I would lose the credit card and the van, it made sense that I should rent a house close to where I would be working.
I parked the van in a free parking bay and left Daniel napping on the passenger seat while I crossed the High street and approached an estate agents window.
The photographs of thatched cottages in the window were very attractive but unfortunately way out of my price range. I was on the point of giving up and moving off when a bungalow advertised at a very affordable rent caught my eye. The property was located in the village of Ingleleigh. It was somewhere I’d never heard of it. I thought us living out in the sticks had to be a good thing, the more isolated the better.
I pushed on the door. A bell on a metal hook above my head clanged. The interior looked in need of a makeover.
An attractive girl seated behind a desk looked up and smiled. Her hands froze above a computer keyboard. I couldn’t help but notice her coal black eyes and blood-red fingernails with matching rouge. Her obsidian shoulder-length hair fell like a waterfall across the shoulders of her black dress scooped low at the neck. All in all I found her manner to be pleasant and her features attractive.
I crossed the faded carpet to her desk and felt the cool breeze of an electric fan that was sat on the top of a grey filing cabinet. Oxhampton’s version of air conditioning! The name on the badge pinned to the young woman’s blouse said: Rebecca.
‘Hello,’ she said, no hint of a Devon accent. ’Can I help you?’
Her eyes were unnervingly hypnotic. I coughed.
Please… take a seat Mr…? Her elegant fingers and manicured red nails waved at the chair on my side of the desk.
‘Blakely…’ I heard myself saying having found my voice…. ‘Art… Blakely.’
I was sitting on the edge of the seat feeling strangely relaxed. Perhaps the hint of a South London accent in her voice helped me feel at home.
‘I’m interested in the bungalow in the window… called Moors Cottage’? I said and pointed back at the window.
‘Moors Cottage?’ The girl said frowning and looked up into space.
Placing both hands flat on her desk, as if she were a blossoming orchid she rose from her chair in one graceful movement.
‘Oh. I know the one.’ Rebecca said stepping out from behind her desk.
Rebecca sashayed over to the metal filing cabinet her body almost fluid inside the clinging thigh-length dress.
When she bent at the waist to pull out the lower drawer of the filing cabinet, an attack of modesty compelled me to look away. When she spoke her voice had a dusky quality to it.
‘It’s in the village of Ingleleigh. Do you know it?’
‘I… I er no. Is it far from here?’ I said.
‘It’s about three miles to the North of town, over that way.’ Rebecca said slamming the drawer shut. She had in her hand a coloured brochure when she went back behind her desk.
The estate agent remained standing when she leaned across her desk to hand me the pamphlet.
‘Those are the details Mr Blakely,’ she said flicking her mane of black hair to one side of her head. ‘I think you’ll find it a delightful cottage. ‘If you like, I could call the owners right now and see if they are able to let you have a viewing?’
I read through the details. It all looked good: three bedrooms, a garden, a garage and even an attic room, blah, blah, blah. I nodded and looked up at her leaning over me. ‘This looks good Rebecca. I would love to take a look at it today… I mean right away?’
‘Let me give the Blakely’s a call.’ Rebecca said. ‘They are farming family. I imagine one of them will be home.’
I watched Rebecca’s red nails said punch in the numbers. ’ Moors Cottage is actually on their land.’
I thought it would embarrass her if I pointed out she had got our names mixed up…. I was Mr Blakely; God knows what the farmers name was! Instead I sat on my hands and watched her obsidian eyes stare up at the ceiling. I could hear the burr of the phone at the other end.
I wasn’t happy about the cottage being on the farmer’s doorstep as it were, but it was a cheap rent. I wasn’t about to allow a minor niggle like that to ruin my chance of pulling off a spectacular, last minute reprieve to my dead-in-the-water quest. I mean we’d got nothing to hide except perhaps our two dogs!
‘Four o clock would be absolutely fine Mrs Blakely?’ Rebecca said into the phone. ‘Yes it is a Mr Blakely that will be coming to view it… I know odd isn’t it, Good bye Mrs Blakely.’
Rebecca held one thumb in the air.
‘Mrs Blakely!’ I queried.
‘Yes Mr Blakely. They have the same surname how odd is that?’ Rebecca smiled and said. ‘That’s that all sorted then. Mrs Blakely will meet you at Moors Cottage around four today?’
I hadn’t a clue where the village of Ingleleigh was, or even if I would find it on my AA route map! (This was years before smart phones and GPS).
‘Any chance you can help me out with directions Rebecca?’
I felt bewildered by the speed things were moving at. One minute I had nothing to show for almost two weeks hard slog, now all of a sudden my ducks were lining up.
Back at the van I handed Daniel the brochure.
‘Looks good Dad.’
I turned the key in the ignition, checked my mirrors, looked at my watch, and pulled out of the parking bay. ‘Now we go see it.’
‘Yeah? We going right now?’
Suddenly Daniel was awake and as excited as I was, I said, ‘you betcher buddy.’
Unfamiliar with the area and with the roads little more than twisting narrow lanes I was taking great care with my driving. Daniel was my map-reader.
‘The farm should be on the left, around a sharp bend coming up soon.’
I slammed my foot down on the brake. I felt the rear wheels of the Transit slide on the muddied road. I gritted my teeth and with both my fists locked on the steering wheel I could do no more than watch in horror as the van headed straight for a steep ravine that fell away to a fast running river. I breathed again when the van slewed to a stop just a foot away from the steep wooded incline. Peering through the windscreen, only to see how lucky I was, I saw shimmering beneath six feet of water a sign that said: “Sharp Bend”.
‘Jeez Dad,’ Daniel yelled at me. ‘Careful!’
I made a mental note never to attempt this bend in the dark.
Halfway up a hill slick with sheep crap, I came to a pair of metal gates tied back with binding twine. A sign, just readable under a layer of mud told me I had found Moors Farm. I swung the van onto the concrete drive and pulled up behind a tractor and then killed the engine. On my left was a row of galvanised metal buildings. Nearby, untidy heaps of rusted metal looked like abandoned agricultural appliances. When I turned on my windscreen wiper to get a better look at the tumbledown farmhouse I succeeded only in blinding my view with mud.
I looked over at Daniel. ‘Better wait here. I cant take you back to Dave’s covered in cow dung.’
I jumped down from the van and looked down at my feet. ‘Crap!’ Literally!
Walking on tiptoes, I approached a scarred and darkly stained wooden door. I reached up and shook a brass bell on a hook attached to the wall. When I heard dogs barking furiously behind the door I stepped back into cowpat. I was scraping my shoe on a yard broom when the door swung inwards and two overzealous sheepdogs came at me. A woman, built like brick outhouse, stepped out to greet me. With an ear-piercing whistle she sent the dogs back inside.
‘Mr Blakely?’ the woman said standing feet apart, wellies deep in animal dung her thickly calloused hand held extended. ‘I’m Mrs Angela Blakely. You’re here to see the bungalow?’
The woman, when she smiled exposed two lines of pink gums with baby-like milk teeth. I had to wonder what she had been weaned on?
‘Yes please,’ I said taking hold of her hand. ‘It’s nice to meet you Mrs Blakely… odd isn’t it that we share the same surname!’
The look of confusion Angela Blakely shot back at me suggested there was nothing odd about it at all. I wondered if perhaps the surname Blakely was common round these parts. An unwelcome image of a line of inbred children, dressed in rags with hooded eyes hungrily staring at me came to mind. The attire of my prospective landlady didn’t help. Around her broad shoulders wrongly buttoned up with the sleeves rolled up exposing hambone freckled forearms was a thick undyed and probably unwashed woolen cardigan. Beneath that she wore a clumsy skirt of brownish coloured cotton that ended one inch above her wellies. Her hair had been pulled into a heap on top of her head and pinned into place with a washing peg. The entire assembly: the woman–her– hair–her teeth–and her clothing brought to mind disturbing scenes from the film Deliverance. When she wasn’t looking I wiped the hand she shook down the leg of my trousers.
Without another word Angela marched off. She turned left at the road and strode up the steep hill at a killing pace that had me hopping around trying unsuccessfully to avoid the cowpats that lay in wait like landmines.
I did my best to keep up with her thick legs ploughing effortlessly up the slippery hill.
Without breaking stride Mrs Blakely turned and gave me a look of utter contempt when I cried out after almost falling on my back.
Breathless, I caught up with her at a five bar gate that looked as if it hadn’t been used in donkey’s years. The squat dwelling looked no different from the image on the flyer that was rolled into a tube in my left hand.
Glad to catch my breath I looked about me. The view of Dartmoor, two fields distant was far more eye-catching than the white painted stucco bungalow with its black painted wooden beams, a feature that made me question who in their right mind would attempt to add mock Tudor features to a bungalow? A stiff breeze blowing off the moors carried with it the scent of heather, and. cow dung!
Angela headed round the rear of the bungalow all the while twittering on about how wonderful the rolling hills of Dartmoor were, “and them being just two fields distant.”
I shivered. The sky was full of the kind of miserable drizzle that would marinate your bones.
My eyes took in the concrete tiled roof and the west-facing wall that was covered in lichen. Wasn’t lichen a sign of good clean air? Not on the wall of a house I wouldn’t imagine!
Moors Cottage wasn’t exactly the thatched roof, chocolate box cottage that Julie and I had in mind. I had looked into renting one of those but they were only let out to holidaymakers at a rent way above anything that we could afford
I decided Moors Cottage would have to do for now. Besides, I don’t have the time to shop around for anything else. If, in time, we don’t like it here, we can move on… it’s not like we were buying the place. Right now, I needed to be resolute. I didn’t fancy the prospect of going back home and tell Julie that I had just spent two weeks in Devon and come home with nothing. If I took the cottage on I could return home triumphant, and that was some achievement, getting a job and a home in just two weeks.
‘Please don’t touch the fence.’ Angela called unlocking the back door. ‘It is electrified to keep the sheep in.’
I surveyed the lawned back garden exposed to the roiling fields and the electric fence that kept the sheep from eating the grass. I thought of our two dogs, and the bit on the brochure that said “No Dogs.”
‘Come inside’, Mrs Blakely said tramping through to the kitchen in her muddy boots. ‘In these parts folk rarely use the front door. Yer be up from Lernden then?’ She said.
‘Well you got yersalf a Lernden accent there. Mr Blakely.’
I guess people never really lose the adopted accent of their formative years and even after twenty years living in Sussex I still have a South London twang. It was only after the birth of our first child Robbie that we moved to Crawley, which at that time was called, “ Crawley New Town”.
I did my best to scrape the sheep crap from my shoes on the doormat before stepping inside a kitchen that looked a little sad.
“That’ll be the Aga’. Angela explained seeing me wrinkle my nose at the pungent stench of oil and soot. ‘You get used to it.’
I smiled at her and tried not to stare at the tile design wallpaper that clung perilously to the kitchen walls. Wow! An Aga stove. I had only ever seen one those in farmhouses and posh designer kitchens.
Later, when the winter confined us to this room, the oven in that smelly, cranky, unreliable piece of cast iron, the only source of warmth in the place, could after four hours subdue the toughest cut of meat into something digestible.
’Nice.’ I lied, catching up with Angela Blakely in the narrow passageway that dissected the dwelling.
‘This’ll be the lounge.’ She said with a sweep of her hand after stepping through the door. ‘It’s very cosy when yer got the foy’r going. Ubby and I will be more than appy to sell yer some logs Mr Blakely.’
I bet you would.
I still couldn’t get my head around being called Mr Blakely by a, Mrs Blakely.
When I took in the red brick fireplace blackened by years of soot I understood where the small of woodsmoke came from. I turned full circle and took in the black painted 4 by 2 timbers attached to the ceiling. The fake beams failed at every level. I circled the room mumbling appreciative noises while my host blathered on about the room having a double electric socket and a TV aerial plug.
‘Oh,’ she said pointedly. ‘Please take care pulling the curtains. Our lar’s tenants went and pulled em off’n the wall, and ubby ad to come up ere and fix em.’
I nodded and studied the carpeted floor not sure if there was a design in the red worn covering. It might have been flowers.
Painted entirely with magnolia emulsion, the three bedrooms did nothing to improve the bungalow’s complete lack of charisma.
Clearly proud of the 6-foot by 4-foot bathroom, the farmer’s wife indicated with her hand that I should enter first. I held my breath as I inched past her sturdy hips. The smell of boiled tripe was something one should always endeavour to avoid in the confinement of a narrow doorway. I frowned when I took in the paper-thin plastic shower curtain hanging like corpse on a spring-loaded curtain pole. This item proved to be just one of a number of challenges that Moors Cottage was to present us with over the coming weeks and months. Almost on a daily basis the curtain pole would fall upon your head resulting in a frantic fight to become free of the wet entanglement. The cast iron bath looked almost fearful beneath the shower curtain. Judging by the streaks of green verdigris beneath the taps, the bath may have been crying. Twisting the tap heads made no difference to the constant drip-drip-drip from both spouts. I chose not to lift the lid on the toilet bowl. As a precaution against any future dispute I pointed out the thin crack in the wash hand basin. Curling at the edges, above three bands of white ceramic tiles arranged around the bath and over the hand basin someone had hung Ivy design wallpaper. Having the appearance of fly droppings where the walls and ceiling met, there was an infestation of mildew that a proprietary cleaner would easily eradicate. I imagined it wouldn’t take me long to get the place looking nice.
Mrs Blakeley said, ‘my usband and his brother built this cottage.’
‘Oh really? ‘ I said trying to sound impressed.
‘And, they did all the decorating themsalves. They didn’t go use’n no perfessional painters.’
‘That’s…wow, that’s good work Angela.’ I said raising my eyebrows in mock surprise.
I had seen all I needed to. Moors cottage wasn’t quite what Julie would have in mind but for now it would have to do.
‘How soon can I move in?’
Mrs Blakely beamed. ‘Just as soon as you pay the deposit.’
‘I don’t see why not? You need to pay the deposit at the estate agents and sign a six-month tenancy agreement and then they will let you have a set of keys.’
Beaming I pumped Angela’s hand and checked my watch.
‘What time do they close?’
‘Five o clock.’
‘It’s twenty to five, do you think I’ll make it?’
‘You could if you get your skates on Mr Blakely. Good luck. I’ll lock up.’
Driving way too fast for the roads I made it into town by five to and parked up on double yellow lines right outside the estate agents office. The lights were on inside but I saw no movement.
The bell above the door dinged when I burst in.
‘Hello again Mr Blakely.’ Rebecca said smiling when she came through a door from a back office. ’Mrs Blakely rang me to say you were on your way and that you may be a little late. I have all the paperwork ready for you to sign.’
I paid the deposit with a cheque.
When I climbed back into the van Daniel stared at me. He looked worried and at the same time hopeful. I smiled at him.
‘Well?’ Daniel said.
‘We are moving to Devon this weekend Daniel.’ I said unable to suppress the excitement in my voice. ‘Can you believe that? Look I have the keys.’ I rattled them in his face.
My decision to rent Moors Cottage, the only property I got to look at with all it’s undeniable faults, might have appeared to a casual observer to have been impetuous. I had no choice, time weighed heavily on me and right now I would have taken anything that would enable us to escape those debt collectors that would pursue us to the ends of the earth! (Erm, maybe that last sentence was a little apocalyptic.)
There were two factors that mediated in favour of Moors Cottage: the first being it’s remoteness. There was no way our creditors would find us living on the edge of Dartmoor. Of equal weight was the low rent that was half I might have expected to pay.
Arguably, the exigencies of my situation along with no small measure of cognitive bias had brought about the temporary blindness to the negatives that should have been obvious! Or… had I just been plain dumb!
I doubted even hindsight would have offered me an alternative? Older folk might have described my dilemma as “Hobson’s choice”.
For the curious, if I can be pardoned for a small departure from the main tale, I will relate how in the 15th/16th c, a Tobias Hobson, a man of salubrious disposition and the proprietor of established and venerated stables adjacent to London Bridge was in the business of hiring out horses by the day, to gentlemen, who were known to ride the horses hard. To ensure that his stable of forty horses were ridden and rested in strict rotation, Tobias applied one single steadfast rule, in that the hirer may only take the horse in the stall nearest the gate, or, he may take none. In this manner Tobias’s horses were each ridden with due justice…. or, as my old mum would have said: “Take it or lump it.” I applied the same logic to my taking on Moors Cottage. I would take it and lump it, warts and all.
Two weeks back, I had promised Julie I would find a job and a place for us to live and I was now about to fulfill that promise.
Right now, more than anything, I wanted our family to recover a little dignity.
Back in the van I fired up the engine and before I could pull away Daniel said.
‘Dad I never got to see inside the house.’ I would have liked to have seen inside it before you took it on.’
I thought about that. I then decided that rather than stay another night at Dave and Marianne’s I would go back there, collect our stuff, pay them anything I owed them, and then head off home. With any luck I could be back home before midnight. If I drove over to Moors Cottage now, to let Daniel have a look inside it, my schedule would go way off.
‘Sorry Daniel,’ I said.’ Not tonight. All being well, we can pack up the house over the weekend and then come back and move in on Monday.’
Before I’d even swung the van around in a tight arc across the High Street, I’d softened.
‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll drive over there again and park up on the drive and then you can see it from the van window. I wont hang about though. I want to get to Dave’s by six, and that’s a good half hour run, and then I plan to be on the road heading home before seven.’
I stayed in the van and kept the engine running while Daniel walked around the outside of the property, looking through the windows. He was grinning when he buckled up his seat belt.
‘Yeah looks good Dad.’
‘And see over there,’ I said proudly, pointing out the heather clad hills over to our right, ‘that’s Dartmoor.’
My plan was coming together. It was time I headed back to Pear Tree farm and packed up our things. The next two days was going to be hell…but a good, positive kind of hell, or so I imagined.
Friday: 19:41–Pear Tree farm.
I should have felt over the moon but I didn’t.
Preferring not to use Dave’s phone with the added complications of him having to work out how much I owed him for the call, I took a short walk to the phone box in the village. The inside of the booth stank of stale urine. Despite the fact that I had some great news to tell Julie I hesitated.
In my hand the keys to our new home felt cold and unfamiliar.
Two weeks back, when I set off from Crawley I had been all gung-ho about me finding work and a new home in Devon and now having paused to take breath, my confidence was holed with doubts. Perhaps it had all happened too fast. I was reminded of what I often tell others: “be careful what you wish for”.
I hadn’t seen Julie in almost two weeks. In recent calls home Julie had been getting increasingly hostile and despondent. I was worried what kind of mood I would find her in when I told her about Moors Cottage. It was entirely possible she had gotten cold feet about the whole idea. I was having second thoughts myself. With the phone in my hand burring away I rehearsed in my head what I was going to say. My other hand was waiting to drop the coins in the slot.
I would keep the conversation upbeat. The last thing Julie needed was for me to sound like I was having second thoughts. I would need to reassure her, fire up her enthusiasm. She would need to feel confident that I knew what I was doing… Now that was a scary thought!
I finally got around to dropping the twenty pence coins in the slot. I held the receiver to the side of my head unaware that I was drumming my fingers on the sticky metal shelf or holding my breath or pulling a face at the smell of stale tobacco in my nose when my wife picked up on the third ring.
‘Hi Julie. It’s me.’ I blustered. ‘You’re not going to believe this… I’ve found myself a job and a place to live’.
The truncated version I poured down the phone sounded nothing like what I’d rehearsed.
Finally. I paused and waited for her reaction. You could have reached out and pinged the tension on the line. The silence became intolerable. “Julie’…?
‘Sorry…. did you…’ Julie enquired. ‘Did you say that you’ve got a job and a place to live?’
‘Yes.’ I said picking up a hint of excitement in the tone of her voice and wishing I were there to visually confirm this.
‘Oh my God! Are you serious? That’s terrific news.’
‘Yeah, great news eh?’ I said stiffening my knees that felt about to give way.
‘Well done you… oh…’ I heard her voice trail off. Oh! What? I sensed bad news.
‘What? What’s happened Julie?”
‘Nothing, nothing at all,’ she said hurriedly, ‘It’s just I need to apologise for last night.’
‘Last night… what happened last night?’
‘Art. I’m sorry. I didn’t really mean it when I said that you were sitting on your arse down there having a holiday with your mates.’
Yeah it had hurt.
‘That’s okay. This has been tough on all of us.’
‘So, tell me… tell me,’ Julie said excitedly. ‘Where’s the house? What’s it like? Don’t tell me…’ she said lowering her voice to a deep throated gasp. ‘You’ve got us a thatched cottage! Oh my God Robbie,’ she squealed turning her mouth away from the phone, ‘Dad’s gone and found us a thatched cottage’
That’s it. I was in trouble.
Taking the path of least resistance I decided not to deflate her enthusiasm. I would tell her all about it when I got home later.
‘Julie,’ I said solemnly, ‘I’ll be leaving here in about an hour and I will be home around eleven, I need you and Robbie to start packing. Before I leave here I’m going to call a van hire company in Crawley and book a removal lorry.’
‘Julie are you still there?’
‘This is really happening isn’t it?’ She sounded subdued.
‘Yes. We are moving to Glorious Devon. Things are going to get better from now on Julie. No more bloody unexpected visits from the likes of Paul and Leroy, no more nasty letters or phone calls… this is it Julie, finally we can be free of them toe rags that would see us on the street. We’ll just go for it Julie … what’s the worst that can happen?’
I couldn’t see her but I sensed she was nodding.
‘You’re right. Let’s just do it. Robbie and I’ll get cracking on the packing. Is Daniel okay?’
‘He’s fine.’ I said. ‘He’s very happy. We’ll be home soon.’
If there was ever a time when I wanted to see into the future this was it. Mixed in with the excitement of us moving to Devon were nagging doubts. My gut and my head were locked into a furious debate about how I should proceed. Finally, three miles from Crawley, with Julie about to discover that Moors Cottage was not the Chocolate box cottage that she was expecting, and that it wasn’t near the sea, and that it was located on the edge of a bleak moor an hours drive from the nearest beach I told the nagging voices in my head to shut hell up. She’ll be fine. She’s going to love it.
‘What the hell is that?’
‘That’s it. That’s the house. Great eh?’
‘That’s’ nothing like what you told me. Where the hell is the thatched roof and the picket fence and the roses round the door?’
‘I never told you that,’ I said frowning. I saw Robbie slip out of the room. ‘Julie, it’ll be great. You have to give it a chance.’
She sat down heavily on the sofa staring at the image of Moors Cottage on the flyer.
‘Read what it says about the house and the area on the back.’ I said taking the flyer out of her hand, turning it over and holding it front of her face.
‘You lied to me. How far is it from the sea?’
‘I… I don’t exactly know,’ I lied. ‘I haven’t driven there from the bungalow. I only got to see it a few hours ago.’
‘Not walking distance then?’
‘We have the moors…. Deer and buzzards and….’
‘And the Beast of Dartmoor!’ Daniel chimed in.
I shot him a look that in biblical days might have turned him to stone. ‘The photo doesn’t do it justice does it Daniel?’
‘No. You’ll love it mum. It’ll be great.’
Julie got to her feet and kept her back to me when she studied the flyer. I was holding my breath when she returned it to me at arms length. Her mouth looked a little pinched. I saw her take in a deep breath. I winced.
She’d tipped up her chin to look down her nose at me. I was right to be nervous.
Her disappointment was visceral. “Hmmm,’ she said. ‘Not quite as chocolaty boxy as I might have hoped. It will have to do for now.’
Around ten that evening we paused from packing up the house to eat a takeaway curry on the sofa. Julie’s earlier dark mood had improved.
I guess it must have occurred to her that moving to Moors Cottage had to be a whole lot better than remaining in Crawley, waiting to be thrown out onto the street to live in a cardboard box under Waterloo bridge. (Yeah I know… that sounds a little melodramatic?)
With so much to do, the next day we were up bright and early. Having spent the past ten years renovating Holly Cottage I was damned if the banks were going to get it back in good order and so with gusto I set about stripping the place of everything unscrewable, including the brass light switches, plug sockets and door furniture that I’d paid a small fortune for.
By midnight, exhausted, we were done packing.
Sunday morning, a little after nine, I had loaded up the Transit van up with stuff of lesser value from the house and then drove it across town to the van hire company where I parked it up outside a chain link fence. I was taking a risk, leaving it there but I had no choice Julie had the car to drive. It was going to have to stay there overnight.
Through a wire fence I could see a long line of white hire trucks of varying sizes all parked up nose-out. I wondered which of these they had set aside for me.
Amongst the line of smaller vans there was one huge lorry. It had been parked up nearest to the gates, so it could be easily driven out I guessed!
When I made the telephone booking I hadn’t give any thought to the capacity, the sort of questions they throw at you. I now realised I should have interrogated the guy more closely while I had him on the phone. What do I know about cubic capacity?
‘Look.’ I’d told him in monosyllabic italics. ‘I need to move a three-bedroom house and a garage. Can you please set aside any vehicle that you consider adequate for the task.’
I crunched my way across the gravel forecourt heading for a Portacabin with a sign above the door that said: ”Office”.
A skeletal thin man I calculated to be in his mid-forties, peered at me over the top of his newspaper before sliding his feet off the desk. He folded his copy of the News Of The World and blew cigarette smoke in my general direction. I wondered how he might have imagined that combing a web of thin hair from one ear to the other improved his looks. I guessed he lived alone. His skin was the colour and texture of ancient scrolls. The room stank of stale tobacco smoke.
Employing a modicum of communication, skeletal man had me sign the hire papers. When he stood to remove a set of keys from a hook above the desk I noted he had a discernible stoop.
With a hand motion he bade me follow him out into the yard where I had to almost run to keep up with his rangy gait.
After passing several trucks any of which would have done the job, rather worryingly we were drawing nearer to the huge pantechnicon at the end of the line. I dismissed as ludicrous the worry he was about to give me that. Something that big, surely was set aside for proper removal men and not someone who had never driven anything bigger than a one tonne Luton. I groaned when we stopped in its shadow.
‘My God! ‘ I uttered when he thrust the keys at me.
‘Here you go mate.’ He said digging a nicotine-stained finger around in his mouth attempting to dislodge from a back molar a remnant of the bacon roll he had eaten earlier. ‘You got it for the weekend.’ He grunted past the finger and then turned smartly on his heels. ‘Bring it back with a quarter tank of fuel.’ He called back over his shoulder.
‘Whoa!‘ I cried out having finally found my voice. I was more terrified than angry. You can’t be serious?’
Ten paces from me he stopped and looked back. The gingerish comb-over appeared to be waving at me.
‘Do I look like someone who likes to joke?’
Actually, he didn’t.
‘At least you can show me how it works!’
He stomped back puffing smoke from the fag clenched in his teeth. I was not about to be deterred by the look of utter scorn on his face.
On tiptoes and stretched to my full height of five feet four and one eighth inches I struggled to reach the door lock. I was probably going to need some sort of hop-up to get inside.
“I’m sorry mate,’ I said shaking my head, ‘this… this lorry is far too big. I can’t possibly drive something that big. Don’t you have anything smaller? Can’t I have one of these?’ I said indicating no particular van in the line-up.
Using his finger and thumb he flicked the butt of his cigarette into the litter-strewn grass growing up the chain link fencing. He then lit another. He sucked in greedily and then blew smoke in my face. With the cigarette wobbling between his lips he said.
‘You could have had one of those mate… but this was the one you booked.’
I did my best to commit to memory the lecture he conveyed with as much enthusiasm as a bad teacher. I settled for the basics, such as: where to find the fuel filler cap and that I must only ever put diesel into the tank and never petrol… how to find reverse gear… and lastly and most importantly, how to lower the driver’s seat?
Leaving me feeling like an abandoned child he turned his back on me and walked away shaking his head.
I solved the problem of getting up into the lorry by taking a running jump at the beast and snatching at the grab rail by the door of the cab.
The steering wheel felt as big as a Ships Wheel. I was horrified to see there were no less than twelve gears. Crap!
I turned the key. The engine fired up first turn. I eased my foot down on the accelerator and felt the seat beneath my bottom tremble. The engine sounded like a restless volcano. After considerable crunching and grinding of metal and having reversed into the chain-link fence twice I eventually found a gear that propelled the beast forwards travelling at a relatively sedate momentum. That would have to do. I thought that I might be in second! Steering the huge animal out of the yard I was imagining all manner of disasters lying in wait on the 300-mile road trip.
Fifteen minutes later having made the entire journey using only two gear positions I managed to reverse the truck through the gates of Holly Cottage. I turned off the engine and sighed.
My initial thoughts about this lorry being far too big and capable of consuming two entire households of stuff were about to be confirmed as pure unscientific folly.
After half filling the truck I discovered that the occasional boot sales and frequent dump runs had been monumentally inefficient in trimming excess from our bloated homestead. The amount of stuff that Julie and I had accumulated in nine years at Holly Cottage was truly astonishing.
Three hours later, having filled the entire rear of the lorry, I surveyed the amount of stuff still on the driveway. I had the contents of three garden buildings and the garage to find room for.
Scratching my head made no discernable difference to the problem. There was a forest of potted plants, stone statues, stone planters, plus boxes and boxes of plumbing bits, scaffolding, planks of wood… the list went on…. Motivated by spite and determined no bugger was going to get another penny out of me I began ramming stuff in the van. The banks when they slunk in after we were gone were welcome to the cobwebs and the dead flies. Everything else was coming down to Devon. What we couldn’t fit in on this trip would be stowed and locked in the garage and collected another day.
Julie, Robbie, Daniel, and my brother and his wife, who lived just next door, were chatting on the driveway when I went back inside the house to check to see if we had left anything behind. Stripped of its contents my home for the past nine years felt eerily creepy. It was as if we had never lived here.
I walked into the lounge and looked down at the chipboard flooring that I’d lain soon after we moved in having discovered the floorboards and the joists were alive with woodworm and decayed with dry rot. The carpet I had rolled up and stowed in the back of the lorry.
On the edge of an emotional meltdown I strayed through each room fighting to breath past what felt like a painful rock caught in my throat.
I was fearful for the future and grieving for my loss. As poor as church mice we were about to venture into the unknown and that scared the hell out of me.
I found myself upstairs. Funny the things you notice when a room has been stripped of what made it what it was. The crayon marks left on the walls by my children, the knocks and digs in the woodwork on the landing, odd bits of Lego in the bottom of a cupboard, stickers of fairies on a window. I ran my fingers over the series of lines cut into the doorframe. I fought to get air past that painful lump in my throat. I could hear the others laughing in the garden. I brushed the back of my hand across my eyes and looked closer at the marks that represented how much our children had grown in a single year. I wondered if it were ever possible to eradicate the spirit of a person from a space they had come to love? Leaving this house was like leaving my children behind.
My heart was not in this. It was all too painful. I wanted to be outside with the others. I went back downstairs to the reception room that led directly off the front door. I paused with my hand on the door latch and looked back along the narrow corridor that led out to the kitchen. My feet carried me unbidden out to the back of the house where I routinely inspected every cupboard and pulled out every drawer. I crossed to the window where I would no longer be able to watch the birds feeding as I ate breakfast, and stared at the empty peanut feeders hanging from the Cotoneaster tree I had planted five years a go.
Everywhere about me was my handiwork. Just a few years ago, before my life went to hell, I had refitted this end of the house. In just seven days, having packed my family off on holiday to Italy, single-handedly, I installed a new kitchen, knocked down and rebuilt walls, removed windows, rearranged and fitted and tiled the bathroom and then built a purpose-built sunroom that led out to the garden.
Absent-mindedly I checked my watch. I wasn’t able to join the others yet. This was painful.
I found myself crossing the yellow flagstone patio passing the raised, semi-circular fishpond and then passing under the pergola with the hanging Wisteria now vibrant with colour to look up at the sign I’d fitted above the door of the twenty-foot long cabin we called: “The Studio.”
I hesitated on the threshold of the wooden building that had served many functions. I paused with one foot on the threshold and poked my head inside. A soft hazy mist blurred my vision. I sniffed and ran the back of my hand across my upper lip. I bit my lip and taking a deep breath I stepped inside.
The tragic figure of a broken man was reflected in the wall of full-length mirrors I’d fitted when Louise wanted this as a practice room for her dancing. I straightened my back and wiped my sleeve across my eyes. The ballet bar I’d fashioned from two-inch curtain poles brought on flashbacks of my daughter wearing a pink leotard with matching leg warmers and pink ballet shoes, her hair was pulled back into a ponytail and tied with a scrunchy. She was up on her tiptoes practicing her dancing that would one day become her profession.
I sighed as my eyes settled on the corner of the room where I once had my drum kit set up and where Robbie would compose music on his keyboard. I made my way over to the vanity unit I’d installed when Louise needed a bigger bedroom and a place where she could entertain friends.
Outside in the warm sunshine I began to breath normally. I made my way across the lawn and poked my head inside what used to be Robbie’s summer bedroom. The black and purple painted walls had been his idea of a colour scheme. Blobs of Blue Tack attached to the walls tugged at my heart. A cloak of sadness felt suffocating. I questioned why I was putting myself through this. It was as if I were paying my last respects to a deceased loved one. I was now almost at the far end of the garden. Sounding like a wind chime I could hear the gentle tinkling of the brook that ran across the far end of the property. I looked up into the canopy of the tall Victoria plum tree that attracted the wasps in August. There would be a bumper crop this year, but not for us. I came to the dog kennels that I’d built at the back of the garden. They pens were silent now. There was a time when my approach would be greeted with excited barking and wagging tails. I turned my head in time to see a frog leap into the clear ruining water of the brook.
Turning to my left I swung back the gate that led out to the woods. It squealed in surprise at the assault on its creaking hinges. I crossed the wooden bridge over the summer dry ditch. The deciduous trees were in the process of upheaval. Small saplings that may not have expected to survive, free of the choking shadow of the giant Horse Chestnuts that lay like fallen warriors, struck down in the storms of October 87 reached up for the sky. Among these I could see the young of the stricken trees, Mother Nature resisting the might of the elements.
The ancient oak tree had survived the carnage, but not quite the tree house I’d built in the lower branches. Robbie had made a horror film out here using the new high-spec video camera we’d bought him for his eighteenth birthday. The cast was his family, plus a few press-ganged friends. Louise got to be the murder victim complete with fake blood. I wasn’t to know it at the time that Robbie would one day turn that latent talent into a successful filmmaking career.
I stopped revolving in giddying circles looking up at the blue sky through the canopy of leaves and closed my eyes. In the whisper of the wind I could hear my kids laughing. Louise shrieked at Daniel who had wanted to introduce her to the worm he had befriended. Then there was silence. I listened harder. There… as faint as gossamer beyond the rustle of the leaves I could hear my children calling. “Coming ready or not.”
In my minds eye I saw Daniel. He might have been around aged eight. He was wearing the red and white leather Yamaha jacket and matching crash helmet, and was astride the tiny Yamaha motorcycle that we’d bought him for Christmas. With the throttle fully open and with his face gripped with the determination that he was known for he was racing around the dirt tracks and over the wooden ramps that he and I had made last year.
This magical place was where armed with nature books; he and I tracked down and identified bugs and small mammals, and birds, and wild flowers…. This was where we exercised the dogs and planted spring bulbs. These shaded pathways represented more than the passage of our feet. They embodied the drama of my children at play. These woods were much more than a copse of trees and shrubs and muddy pools. This place was embroidered with the passage of their childhood, marked out as special times, cherished times, and never forgotten.
This place… this awesome arena was no longer ours. Like our home, it had been taken from us. Like fallen leaves, over time, these memories would be reduced to dust.
Right now these woods made me want to cry.
I turned my head. My children were calling me. Not a whisper this time.
‘Dad! Are you coming?’ It was Daniel.
I brushed away a tear and hurried back to the house.
The others gathered on the driveway were waiting to go.
My brother Ben and his wife said they would come down soon for a holiday… real soon.
I dusted off my hands… I hugged Ben… kissed Alice. We were done.
Leaving Holly cottage, our dream house was tough on all of us. I couldn’t bring myself to look at Julie waiting in her car, the engine running, when I climbed aboard the truck. I held down the triple-horn and waved at Ben and Alice. They waved back.
It was midday and after a great deal of crunching and grinding I rammed the stick into first gear. The huge truck lurched out into the nearside lane of the A23 and watching through my wing mirror, I was relieved to see that that Julie had tucked the Nissan Bluebird in behind me. I began to relax a little.
The sky was a vast blue blanket of infinite hope. I popped a couple of liquorice allsorts in my mouth, pressed down on the gas pedal and frowned at the sound of furniture jostling about in the back of the truck.
The drive down to Moors Cottage proved to be unremarkable. Even swinging the huge truck around the hairpin bend at the foot of the hill I managed with consummate ease.
With the lorry parked on the driveway, Julie, Robbie, Daniel, and I set about offloading it and by eight o clock that evening we were done, but knackered.
In the kitchen, it took me five attempts to get the temperamental Aga to abandon its resistance. I could now get some hot food on the go and heat the water.
Midnight: Within seconds of my head hitting the pillow I was asleep.
The following morning, anxious to hit the road before the traffic built up, I was up and about at first light. I needed to get the hire lorry back before I incurred additional charges.
After a hurried breakfast of toast and marmalade, I went into our bedroom and said goodbye to Julie who grunted from under the covers.
When I swung the truck out onto the hill, the sky was overcast. I could sense rain was on the way.
With no weight in the back, the lorry seemed to fly along and once on the motorway. I unwound a little.
I steered the lorry through the gates and into a parking bay, turned off the engine blew through my cheeks. I felt the cab tremble under my seat. I jumped down from the cab and made my way over to the office, which, as expected was closed. I popped the keys through the letterbox as instructed and walked out to the Transit parked up in the road. I was relieved to see no one had broken into it.
It felt odd driving something so small as the Transit back to Devon, a journey I imagined I would never have to do again.
I couldn’t have been more wrong!
They say, a change is as good as a rest and one of the immediate benefits of moving to Devon was the tangible relief from the unannounced visits by, Pete and Leroy, our local bailiffs.
With each passing day, our jangled nerves slowly unwound although we would still jump out of our skins at any unannounced visitor, and just opening the post was a bit like getting a wartime telegram. Despite these niggling peculiarities I felt we were making good progress.
August came around, and we’d been living, not quite the dream. The days were warm, if often wet, and the evenings stretched on till eight in the evening.
This particular day had been a scorcher – just right we thought for a late supper in the garden. Working as a team, Julie, the boys, and myself set a table and chairs in the pool of yellow light spilling from the kitchen window. I looked up in wonder at the black sky punctured like buckshot in a velvet blanket. We set the table for a sumptuous evening meal of beans on toast … al fresco. Half an hour later, ravaged by midges we ran back inside the house. Living in close proximity to fields where cattle and sheep grazed had its drawbacks. Throughout the whole of August we daren’t keep the door and windows open after dusk.
We had hoped… expected even, that family and friends would flock to our door for a free holiday in glorious Devon. Nobody came more than once. The gilding on the dream was now beginning to fade.
At first, we took the hits, rolled with the punches as it were, but inexorably, reality bit home. Like Sirens of the seas, the seduction of the quaint villages, narrow lanes, thatched cottages, and cream teas had lured us into a trap. I had been naive, foolish even, to imagine Devon was going to rescue us from the poverty that blighted our lives. How stupid to think that the locals would take us into their hearts and hearths – that the employers would jump at the chance of employing a distinguished, hard working plumber such as yours truly. At first I tried denial, then I tried massaging facts, and then I switched to displacement of cause, and then digging ever deeper, I focused on the positives. Then as the clouds darkened and the sun shied from our windows the bone-grinding poverty shook its fist in my face. The weekly visit to our local supermarket became an exercise in compromise. We weren’t exactly living on gruel but it did feel as if we were living in a period drama. The employers down here treated their workers no better than forelock tugging serfs, leaving them dry husks of whatever ambition they might once have nursed. Beaten down by fear not a single one I ever met had would dare question, let alone challenge their boss and that worried me. Having run my own business for thirteen years… I was not at all comfortable at being told how to do my job! Would I be able to hold my tongue… act like a serf? Only time would tell.
For Julie and I this risky Devon experiment, was about to unravel and push us over the edge.
Little by little, the dream of us as a family spending hot summer days lazing on sandy beaches, eating cornets layered with clotted cream, and taking our dogs across the moors proved to have no more substance than Will-o-the-wisp, who was said to stalk the Dartmoor bogs.
With summer gone the mist rolled in off the moors. This I was reliably advised by the locals would blot out the sun from October right round till April. That winter was not one for brass monkeys or for tender-leaf Grockle’s such as us poor souls huddled in our freezing cottage feeding on cheap cuts of meat and tinned food, and warming our ice-brittle bones on the miserly heat given out by the smelly Aga. Once a day I would go outside to the oil tank to inspect the fuel gauge and with grim anticipation I saw that dark, cold days lay ahead.
Saturday. November 16. 9.47.am. The wind was cold enough to cleave a parson in two. The ice on the windows was thickening by the day. The exposed and isolated cottage high on the moors, blasted by the freezing winds careening off the moors became an igloo. I couldn’t imagine the North Pole being colder!
To add insult to our misery, my employer was now acting like a character out of a Dickens novel. Paying me what he fancied rather than what I had earned. From one week to the next I had no idea what I would get in wages.
Shut away like the Three Little Piggy’s with the wolves of hunger hammering at our door I sought a solution that was as dangerous as it was unthinkable…. I was contemplating a blasphemous suggestion that carried terrible risks. I would need to pick the right moment, catch my wife when she was in the right mood, and then test the waters with a mild suggestion.
‘You have to be joking!’ She snarled. ME! Get a job?
‘You never said a word about me having to work, when you convinced me life would be great down here in this godforsaken dump!’
I winced again. In the cold I seemed to have lost my sense of timing. My wife’s reaction was entirely rational and to be expected. I fully understood her point of view; after all, Julie already had a career…of sorts! She was a housekeeper… always had been… that was her profession, and I…. I had always been her employer. These were long-established hierarchical positions that would be difficult, if not impossible, to renegotiate. I was taken aback by how quickly she shifted tack.
‘Besides,’ she said calming down, ‘There is no work here. Where would I find a job in this ghost town?’
She was right of course. I filed the matter into my overflowing “unresolved’ in-tray and returned to the jigsaw puzzle, scattered across the Melamine kitchen table I bought earlier in the week in a charity shop for fifty pee. It had come in a jiffy bag with no picture. The minute I counted seven corner pieces I had my doubts about its claim to be ‘all there’.
Julie broke my concentration.
‘We going shopping or what? We’ve got no milk.’ She grumbled.
I pushed aside a heap of unsorted puzzle pieces and looked up. Dressed in her thick padded coat, wearing a hat with earmuffs and fur-lined boots, and pulling on a pair of gloves, she glared at me. In that get-up she looked like Nanook of the North. I thought it imprudent to enlighten her of this perception.
I rose from the table.
‘Yes.’ I said, irritated more by the puzzle than my wife’s manner. After sweeping the pieces back in its bag I pulled on my duffel coat. ‘I’m ready.’
Julie sat in the car steaming up the windows while I, crunching around on frozen grass and with the aid of a spade, tackled the ice on the windscreen. My head was still preoccupied with the mathematical conundrum of how many corners a rectangle had when I heard the passenger window crack open. Julie poked her head out
‘What are you mumbling about?’
‘Nothing dearest.’ I replied. Go back to sleep. I muttered.
It is remarkable how hungry a person can get when you have little money for food. Equally astonishing is how appealing certain items of food can be when you are least able to afford them.
Driving into town Julie and I had words. Unfortunately I didn’t get to use mine.
The municipal car park behind Morrison’s was half empty. The fact that my favourite parking space under the overhanging evergreen Magnolia tree was unoccupied I took as a good omen. I couldn’t believe the fragility of my existence life had been reduced to worrying about omens.
The footpath to the Co-op, took us past, “Teaspoons café.” As usual I found myself, like some Dickensian, urchin staring through the steamed up windows at people who could afford to eat a fry-up. I was salivating when my wife, embarrassed by my behaviour walked off. An elderly couple, gloved and hatted, arms linked, heads low swung the door inwards and stepped out. I sucked greedily on the sweet smell of bacon and eggs. The elderly man glared at me when they needed to sidestep me blocking the doorway. I gripped my stomach and was reminded that it had been two hours since I’d eaten two pieces of white toast with an abstemious spread of marmalade.
I was about to run after my wife when a notice taped to the window checked my progress.
I caught up with Julie and taking her by the arm I lured her back to the café.
‘Where are you taking me?’ She said pulling back.
‘I just want to show you something.’
There followed a face-to-face standoff in the narrow mall.
‘You are making a scene, ‘I said. People are watching us.’
‘Then let go of my arm.’
‘I just want to show you something.’
It was a bit like pulling a struggling toddler along, but I did get her to the window.
‘Look. There’s a job for you.’ I said excitedly pointing out the handwritten notice taped to the inside of the window. “Part-time waitress required. No experience necessary.”
Julie was shaking her head. “I am not a waitress. I wouldn’t know what to do.’
‘It says no experience needed. You’d make a great waitress.’ I said.
‘You’re only saying that because you want me to get a job.’
‘I don’t want you to get a job Julie; I need you to get a job.’
‘Ok,’ she said, ‘I will go in and enquire, but I wont get it.’
After closing the door behind her I suspected she had every intention of saying anything that might mean she wouldn’t get it. I was wrong. Ten minutes later she came out smiling.
‘I’m a waitress, ‘she beamed. ‘The girls in there seemed nice. It’s only four mornings a week.’
‘Well done you.’ I said giving her a hug. It felt stiff and awkward. Hugs were a rare commodity these days.
If it hadn’t been for the meagre tips that Julie earned in the cafe, and the foil wrapped waste food she brought home, we might all have starved that winter.
So far, living in Devon had proved to be a challenge. On the plus side I had a job. The might have worked out, had my employer paid me what I was due, when it was due. Getting paid at the end of each week had become a lottery. Julie would meet me at the door on a Friday night and would know immediately from the look on my face whether I had been paid or not.
A flake at a time, the gilded dream was started to fade and when Daniel began to talk about how much he loved working on our landlord’s farm I became seriously worried.
My youngest son’s happiness should have been my contentment, but it wasn’t. There was no way I wanted Daniel to end up as a farm worker… coming home to a comely farm wife with his clothes covered in cow crap. I mean, what kind of life would I have condemned him to?
I suppose it was unfair to extrapolate our experience of living in Oxhampton across the whole of Devon but however one wraps it up, what we feel is what we feel, and my interpretation was just as valid as anyone’s, and, perhaps… perhaps, we had been unlucky…maybe in other towns, villages, we may have found people more open and friendly than those that we had encountered. It wasn’t as if we’d made no effort to fit in. We did try. …Just the once! Socialising usually involves money and our pecuniary situation didn’t stretch to going down the local pub. (The only pub within ten miles.)
Constant vigilance, always on the lookout for our creditors who might still track us down we tried to keep out of sight to the point I was getting cabin fever. About four weeks after our arrival I’d had enough living behind locked doors and drawn curtains. The clock on the mantelshelf said it was eight-fifteen. I jumped up from the sofa with such gusto that Julie and Robbie and Daniel thought I had finally lost it.
‘That’s it,’ I announced, ‘I am sick of staying in every night watching telly we are going out.’
My wife stopped chewing on the lump of apple in her mouth.
‘Out,’ she said frowning. ‘You mean – like out… out?’
‘Exactly.’ I said grabbing my coat. ‘Out as in…. we’re off to the pub… out.’
‘And do what exactly… have a game of arrows, maybe a gripping game of dominoes while drinking flagons of real ale mud?’
‘Now you’re being cynical, ‘ I said. ‘Get your coat on.’
Being masterful was not exactly my style but every dog has its day. Any moment now she was going to tell me to go to hell. ‘Come on, I insisted, ‘It’ll be fun.’
The boys were already pulling on their coats. Complaining we were all mad, Julie got into her coat and joined us on the driveway.
‘Is this your idea of fun.’? She complained halfway into the fifteen-minute to the pub.
‘Walking along an unlit country lane slipping on frozen sheep crap is a novel way to spend an evening.’ Robbie said.
Rather than stare into the shifting shadows, giddily I looked up at the inky black sky. Like a baby’s crib under a netting of mist a thousand twinkling stars were celebrating the thin crescent moon hanging low in the sky.
We flinched at every rustle in the hedgerow. There was a collective sigh of relief when the yellowish lights of the pub lit our path.
I was first through the door. A deathly silence fell upon the saloon bar of the Lamb Inn. Four farm workers, huddled over a table, clearly engrossed in a gripping game of dominoes stared at us through dull eyes from under cloth caps. I screwed up my nose and looked across at Julie who’d done the same. I traced the smell of cow dung to the wellies they wore. Julie nudged me and I responded by leading the way across the creaking oak floorboards headed for the table on the far side of the snug.
I stood a while at the bar. The pub landlord was in no hurry to put down the newspaper he was reading. I looked back at the Julie and the boys huddled around an oak table set on iron legs. Julie nodded in the direction of the victualler. I mouthed something back at her.
‘Ahem!’ I coughed.
The landlord stared at me over the top of his cloudy spectacles.
‘What do you want?’
The barren demand took me by surprise. I reddened.
‘Some drinks please… and maybe some cheese and onion crisps.’
‘Aint got none.’
The man was clearly not one for discourse of any kind I felt.
I sensed the heavyset man leaning on the polished bar with thick bare arms would rather we leave. I shared his preference, but to do so would be like rolling on our backs, and I am not a dog. He was waiting for me to tell him what we wanted to drink I looked about me for inspiration and finding no such ingenuity I said cheerfully.
‘Would it be a bother to have a pint of your….’ My eyes flicked back and forth over the beers advertised on the four ceramic bar pumps. ‘A pint of your excellent “Badgers Arse real ale,” sir.’
A pint glass appeared from under the counter. I watched the landlord pump a faltering flow of muddy liquid unto the vessel.
The contents of the three-quarters full glass pushed across the counter resembled slurry.
I looked up into his round ruddy face and smiled. ‘And two cokes… no ice, and a glass of white wine if you please’
I saw his eyebrows as thick as a hedge transform into a brooding frown.
‘Wine you say?’ He said out loud, his remark clearly meant for the dead-eyed domino players that might have been extras in the film Shaun Of The Dead! I followed his gaze before looking back at him.
‘You be up from Lernden then?’ He said placing two tiny bottles of coke and two cloudy tumblers on a beer mat in front of me. ‘You think that I run one of those swanky wine bars you have up in the great metrollops, do yer?’
‘N…n…not at all…. This…’ I said casting my eyes about, ‘this is a charming pub. A real local I would suggest.’
‘We don’t get much call fer wine down yer. Praps, yer misses’ll settle for a Babycham with a cherry on a cocktail stick?’
I studied his face carefully trying to work out if he was being serious or taking the piss. I smiled and said.
‘Thank you, but just another coke please.’
Increasingly uncomfortable by the furtive glances coming our way we kept our voices low. The stench of cow crap hung in the air like a thick fug. The room was small enough to listen in on the farm workers conversation that focused on a disagreement about the virtues of certain cheeses.
When we left the pub, Robbie and I had hardly touched our drinks. A blanket of cloud now hid the moon and the deepening shadows made the walk home scarier than ever.
We almost fell into the relative warmth of Moors Cottage.
I set to making a brew for us while the others got the telly working. Even the crisp night air and the brisk walk home hadn’t done much to eradicate the stench of the cowmen’s wellies that seemed to have marinated my brain. A nagging worry surfaced. Was it possible that in thirty years time, devoid of ambition and never knowing what he might have become, Daniel could become one of those men playing dominoes and stinking of cow crap? I shuddered and stirred the hot tea in the four mugs.
Daniel’s future if we stayed down here was still plaguing my mind when three days later the brewing animosity between my boss, Bowler and I spilled over into open hostility.
Our Devon dream was about to come to an untimely end. Ankle deep in mud on the building site, Bowler and I had a nose-to-nose blazing row over my unpaid wages.
‘Yer an uppity Lerderner, who ought to know his place.” Bowler raged. ‘Pack up your tools, you’re fired.’
‘You can’t sack me… cos I quit!’ I yelled in his face.
‘I sacked you first.’
‘No you didn’t. Simply because you said it before I did doesn’t mean you fired me. Now… I quit! Poke your job up your squeaky arse.’
How I managed to stop myself from cleaving his head from his shoulders with the pair of Stilson’s I held in my hand I will never know.
From day one in his employment I could see that he and I were never going to get along and with that in mind I had the presence of mind to look about for alternative employment and I had already identified three plumbing contractors all within ten miles of Oxhampton. It was only when I approached these one after the other that I discovered what incestuous bedfellows the Victorian-minded bosses were in these parts.
News of the “Uppity Lerndener” who dared stand up to his employer had gone viral. No one dared even speak to the troublemaker that was bound to sow the seeds of sedition in the minds of the dull-witted serfs. Getting blackballed and being a Grockle are mutually disadvantageous positions for a person of my impecunious position. Putting my situation succinctly, I was now up crap creek without a paddle. I couldn’t have been more isolated had I a touch of the Black Plague.
This novel situation was a game-changer. Oxhampton, the Bungalow… the Victorian attitude of employers and the serf-like subservience of the locals had shattered my carefully crafted rose-tinted mental construction of an idyllic life in sunny Devon. After weeks of penniless attrition, now heartily sick of the freezing fog and just weeks from Christmas I was forced to agree with Julie. My hastily drawn up plan to settle the family in Devon had been fatally flawed. Devon proved to be a poverty cul de sac. Putting three hundred miles between my creditors and me did not make a whole lot of difference. There was no work down here as Dave had led me to believe. In fact, as far as prospects went, the recession had hit Devon as hard as any other part of the UK; the only difference that I could see was Devon had fewer opportunities.
It seemed if you came down here poor, that was how you stayed.
‘We can’t live on cow crap!’ I raged as I paced the kitchen. ‘I have to do something Julie. I can’t have us live like this.’
Two hours after my murderous thoughts directed at Bowler had abated, a little after eight, Julie and I sat around the Aga and discussed our future, one in which Devon did not figure.
‘We could go back to Crawley.’ Julie suggested with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
‘Hmm, I don’t fancy that,’ I said picking at a midge fighting for its life in my hot tea. I pushed aside the mug and leaned back in my chair and stared up at the ceiling. The water stain on the ceiling was definitely getting bigger. I shook my head and said, ’I reckon Paul and Leroy will have “Wanted” posters stuck up all over town. There might be a reward for our capture. Maybe we’re Crawley Town’s Bonnie and Clyde?’ I said wryly.
Lost in her own thoughts Julie didn’t respond to my poor attempt at humour. I sighed.
We remained quiet for some time. I watched Julie feed our Yorkie, “Rats” small bits of her Digestive biscuit.
‘We could move up to London?’ She suggested with a shrug. ‘We have family up there and it would be easier to find work.’
I nodded. I was thinking the same. ‘It’d be like going back to our roots,’ I said. ‘But you’re right. That’s where the money is, and the jobs… and we have family there for support.’
I looked around at Solomon the Bassett hound who was groaning by the back door. I got up off my chair to let him out and then returned to my seat. ‘I like the thought of us living in London again. My God how different that would be to the dull dreariness of down here!’ I was warming to the idea… excited even. I began to babble.
‘Of course Robbie will do well in London. There is absolutely nothing for him down here. He’s been on job seekers allowance for months. And of course Louise would be able to get home from her digs in Basildon much easier.’
When I saw Julie’s face lit up I thought the matter was settled. Then I saw her frown.
‘I agree but what about Daniel?’
‘What about Daniel?’
‘He loves it here Art, he loves his school and his best friend lives on the farm. Just lately he’s been talking about helping out with the lambing in the spring.’
‘That’s what worries me the most Julie. I can’t just sit back and do nothing and watch Daniel become a farm worker. Christ Julie, what kind of a life would I be condemning him to? No. I can’t be doing that. As responsible parents you and I have to take a long-term view about his future. He’ll thank us when he’s older.’
While Julie poured the leftover crumbs from the biscuit packet on the floor for Rats to lick up I went over and let Solomon back in the back door. When I returned to my seat Julie looked me straight in the eye.
‘We go to London then.’
It was more of a determination than a question. ’What we got to lose?’ She shrugged and then bent down to lift the Yorkie up on to her lap. Solomon shook and sprayed rainwater over my legs. It was raining again.
‘Awww, Doggy wet then?’ Julie said rubbing the top of Solomon’s head. ‘I got no more biscuits baby.’ She said truthfully.
‘London it is then.’ I said getting to my feet as if was the signal to crack on. Doing nothing was making my bones itch.
There was much to plan. Getting my family up to London was going to take scrupulous organization and more luck than life had afforded me of late. Like bobbing Bingo balls the ideas came thick and fast and most were useless. I gave myself permission to relax a little, thinking a calmer approach might be more rewarding. There would be time enough for me to formulate a more detailed plan later…. before we became committed to anything rash.
Unlike the random, mismatched pieces of the jigsaw I had bought in the charity shop, now in the bin, a waste of fifty pee, the elements of an escape plan began to take shape. I now had what I considered to be a workaround solution. I gave Julie one of my best serious looks.
‘This is the plan,’ I said. ‘I will go on ahead, up to London and stay at my mums while I find a job. Give me two maybe three days and I guarantee I’ll have a job. (At times my confidence levels can border on arrogance) That way we’ll at least have money coming in….’ I paused waiting while the lottery balls of ideas rolled around inside my head. Another idea fell into the tube that came out of my mouth.
‘And…’ Julie said.
‘And, then we save up the deposit to rent a house, and then, boom! We all get back together again.’ Saying this out loud it sounded easy. I knew it wouldn’t be.
‘Saving up a deposit will take a while.’ Julie said.
‘Maybe not too long.’ I said pacing the room with my hand forked around my jaw. ‘Don’t forget we’ll hopefully, have some of the four hundred quid we get back from the farmer. That will kick start our savings.’ Julie was shaking her head. I really didn’t need any negative vibes right now. I just wanted her to go along with this.
‘Some, maybe most of that money we will have to spend renting a removal van. We will have to buy diesel for the removal truck and for the Transit van and then there is petrol for the car.’
‘I can buy the fuel using Smithy’s company petrol credit card.’ I said, hoping and praying the petrol company hasn’t worked out he hasn’t been paying the bills and had closed the account.
Julie flashed me a look. ‘You can’t possibly… I mean. For all of them… use that dodgy card to fill up every vehicle?’
I shrugged. ‘I can try.’
Julie didn’t put up much of a fight, she knew me well enough to know I was going ahead regardless. What did surprise me was how well Julie took the news I planned to live in London, for weeks, possibly months.
‘You’ll be gone a while.’
I nodded. ‘Yep, but hopefully not for too long,’ I said. ‘You’ll be okay though?’
Julie shrugged. ‘Have to be, won’t I?’
Having secured Julie’s backing for my plan I could now take it forward. Next I would call up my Mum and ask if it’s okay to stay at hers. I didn’t see that being a problem, knowing my mum she would have taken in all ten of us siblings in at one go and loved it! That’d be just like when we were kids. I guess, even at her age, she must miss having loads of kids around.
Before I could put my scheme to bed there was one last, thorny issue that I needed Julie to agree to, and this was going to be tricky. Broaching the subject was going to require spot-on timing–stealth, tact, empathy, and no small measure of cajoling.
To her credit Julie appeared to be taking this remarkably calmly. I stalled… thinking was this the best time to bite the bullet and tell her? I could only hopes that she’d understand…see sense. I had gone over every conceivable alternative of which there were none. It’s no good. I am just going to have to tell her, I need to take her car!
There were some things that Julie might meet you halfway on, and occasionally even capitulate on. Then there were other issues that were so insensible to her cherished opinions that you just knew, well I did, that I was treading on sacred ground, and her beloved Nissan Bluebird was sacrosanct. Of course, had we stayed in Crawley, the Inland Revenue debt collectors would by now have snatched it.
Julie could be pedantic, and forthright in her views. Yet, I credited her with having a good practical head on her shoulders with a sharp practical understanding of the need for compromise and it was to this exemplary side of her nature that I made my appeal.
‘You want to take my car up to London! Are you kidding me?’
‘Think about it Julie,’ I said backing off and holding up the palms of my hands, ‘we’d be in the doggy doodah if we lost the Transit van, and driving it around London was asking for it to be seized. I promise…. cross my heart, I’ll get the car back to you as soon as I can.’
‘Yeah. How long?’ She growled. The angle of her neck and her cold scary eyes had me feeling like a mouse facing a cat.
‘I dunno,’ I stumbled. ‘One…two days… one week…. at the most.’
‘Look.’ I argued. ‘You can cadge a lift into work from your friend Carol. I mean she only lives round the corner and she works the same shift as you. I don’t see a problem.‘
‘You’d better look after it.’ She said poking a finger in my face and giving me that interrogators stare.
‘Of course I will’. I said in all seriousness. ‘And the first chance I get I will let you have it back.’
‘You know how much I love my car.’
‘Trust me Julie, I won’t put a scratch on it.’ I said making the sign of the cross. She scowled at me.
‘Don’t do that stupid cross signing thing with me, and that’s not how you do it. You don’t even believe in God.’
I shrugged. She had me bang to rights. ‘Julie, have a little faith will you? The car’s going to be fine.’ My words trailed off when I recalled last time I had driven her car I could tell the clutch was beginning to slip. That, and the fact her car hadn’t been serviced in three years meant driving the Bluebird on a 600 mile round trip was taking a risk.
Crap! I wondered. Would it even get me there?
After scraping the ice from the Bluebird’s windscreen I gave Julie a farewell hug. Our goodbyes were getting awkward. I watched Julie place her hand lovingly on the roof of her car. She gave me one of those looks that always made me feel guilty for things I’d yet to be convicted of.
‘It’ll be fine, I promise. You’ll have it back in no time.’
After loading my plumbing tools and a bag of clothes in the boot of the car I hugged my two sons and set off. This was to be a road trip that I would never forget. And yet, there was worse to come. Far worse.
I hadn’t gone far before I discovered the Bluebird’s clutch was a lot worse than the last time I drove it… a lot worse.
For a second, I considered going back and swapping the Bluebird for the Transit van. That would have been the smart thing to do. What’d I do? I carried on. Then, I argued, if I took it back and let Julie drive it around these frozen lanes, sods law the bloody thing will cease up on her, in the worst possible place, and I wouldn’t be around to come and rescue her. Of course our breakdown service had long expired. I chose to carry on.
After passing through Oxhampton I saw a sign that offered me two choices, I could ether take the B roads, which entailed a lot of gear changing and a greater risk of finishing the clutch off or I could use motorways where, hopefully, I would hardly ever change gears. The downside to the motorway argument was should I break down I had no means of paying for a tow truck.
By the time I reached the motorway junction I had already made up my mind. I took the B road. It was do or die for me, and the Bluebird.
The first leg of my journey was on the A30, heading east. At the Exeter by-pass I turned onto the A303. Luckily the traffic was flowing freely, which was reassuring because the clutch was getting worse and I was now having to ram the gear stick home. The crunching sound and the heavy clonk as the gear dropped into synch made me wince. Any minute the car was likely to get jammed in whatever gear I happened to be in at the time. At every junction I cursed any driver that got in my way. My teeth were being ground to stumps. I had eaten my entire stock of liquorice allsorts over the first five miles. I couldn’t afford to lose focus… I became fixated on the traffic… trying to anticipate the road.
Twenty miles on, and I was regretting my decision to stick to B roads. If I had taken the M5, a longer route admittedly, I could have remained in the same gear for most of the journey. Still, what’s done is done. My fortunes were now in the lap of the gods and with each passing mile my aims and my hopes became less ambitious, it was enough to reach the next town, the next junction, perhaps the end of the road where I would set a new goal.
The M3 was the biggy, but that was a hundred miles distant and ahead of me lying in ambush were any number of dick-head car drivers, tractors, traffic lights, nuns behind the wheel, road junctions and God knows what. Meeting any one of these obstacles would require me to change gear. The thought chilled my blood. If I could just reach the M3 my chances improved by about two per cent, but calculations of this magnitude asked too much of a boy who at the age of fifteen had been expelled from school.
How we made it to the M3 I will never know. I couldn’t entirely place our salvation on the dedication and skill of the car workers at Nissan Motors Sunderland. (Here I make no apologies for mixing object pronouns and personal pronouns. This flouting of English grammar is justified on the grounds the car and I had become brother in arms doing battle with the elements and the forces of fate.) (Yes I know… it all sounds a little too Hollywood). Yes, I made it to the M3. And I was so grateful for that. Whilst I am pretty sure I hadn’t had a religious conversion as such, I did however think that what got me this far had to have been some kind of divine intervention. However, the M3 was a milestone and nothing more. I still had a long way to go. This was not the time to punch the air or relax my vigilance.
Driving on the M3, the Bluebird did allow me to get into fourth gear, which meant I was able to relax a little. As long as I didn’t have to stop! The clattering noises from under the bonnet had my nerves on edge. I pushed home a CD and turned the volume knob to max. Keeping to the nearside lane and at a constant speed of sixty, I made it as far as the Surrey border and the A3, but at what cost to the slathering engine? The wisps of smoke that I thought I saw creeping out from under the bonnet ten miles back, and wanted to ignore, was now like driving through patches of fog. More worrying was the heart- stopping moments when the engine seemed to heave a death rattle sigh and then choke as if it were its last breath. The inside of the car was like a sauna, and I couldn’t open the windows. My eyes would burn from the stinging smoke.
If ever a car had earned a medal for gallantry the Bluebird would surely have merited it. Like a wounded hero the Bluebird refused to surrender. I swear that car was sweating blood.
By now I was sweating too. I could hear the engine whining, as if pleading for me to stop… to end its agony. I could hardly wrest my eyes from the warning lamps on the dashboard. The oil-warning lamp had been glowing for the past fifteen miles. Not even this valiant warrior, with a busted oil pump, could last more than a few miles.
I began cursing and coaxing the car in equal measure. Each mile seemed like a hundred and then, quite suddenly, Tolworth Towers, a building I had always loathed appeared on the horizon. I likened it to a beacon of hope. My body must have overdosed on adrenalin because all of a sudden this grotesque seventies blot on the Surrey skyline was now as beautiful a sight as any. If only I could make it to the next… the last junction, I would have less than ten miles to go. This single thought fired up my flagging spirits. I have never run the London marathon, never wanted to, but I’d seen those mad runners on the telly, head wobbling from side to side, tongue lolling, staggering on wobbly legs trying to reach the crossing line… and that was how I saw the Bluebird now doggedly trying to get me over the finish line. I didn’t dare think about the promise I made Julie, or what I would tell her.
‘Come on girl.’ I urged the Bluebird on.
Up ahead lay my nemeses: The Tolworth Towers, a five-way junction. If I could get across that mad circus of cars fighting to pass each other and not have to change gear there was the slimmest chance I might yet make it to my mum’s flat. I flicked on the left turn indicator and my brain made a million calculations and then re-calculated those calculations. Traffic was on all sides of me. Car, buses and lorries looking for the openings, jostled into line. I slowed enough so that I could stay in fourth gear and then make a run for it, all the while praying some dickhead in front didn’t stop. I swept my arm across my brow and caressed the dashboard of the proud panting beast now burning oil. Like a zipper, I steered the Bluebird into a steady stream of vehicles heading uphill towards the roundabout that had been gnawing at my nerves for the last few miles. This was where it was all likely to go wrong. If the car broke down now I was done for. How the hell would I get all my plumbing tools and my suitcase to my Mums when I hadn’t a bean?
Now, with the engine faltering I was on the slip road approaching the roundabout with a steady stream of unbroken traffic crossing the bridge on my right. ‘Crap I need a space guys… just one car hanging back will do.’ I looked about me, at the other cars. I envied those drivers who were pootling along without a care in the world.
Ideally I needed a two-car gap, or one at a pinch. Timing was critical. Every fibre of my being was focused. If I got snarled up in traffic and had to kick down on the clutch pedal I was done for. All the while I kept the Bluebird rolling I stood a chance. If I stopped, I was dead. I tickled the accelerator until the engine began to judder. I glanced down at the temperature-warning lamp that had been glowing red for the past ten miles, had it gotten redder? Now a choking smell of burning oil and melting plastic caused me to wind down the drivers window. My knuckles gripping the steering wheel had gone white.
There were now only ten cars between the roundabout and me. ‘Please…please… please.’ the words became a mantra. In the rear view mirror I could see a long line of traffic building up behind me. I eased back on the accelerator. The engine sounded like a suit of armour falling down a flight of stone stairs. The temperature inside the car felt like at any moment it was about to go up in flames. I shuddered. I had a vision of Joan De Arc.
I wound up the window. I didn’t want to listen to the dying agonies of this poor car. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. The car was finished, it’ll end up in the scrap yard, and I knew it! There were tears in my eyes. I didn’t know what they meant. I could only guess the Bluebirds valiant fight had moved me. No General on any battlefield could have asked more of this trooper. It must surely have merited a V.C for cars, had such an award existed.
However, self-recrimination, could visit me later, for now, I needed to stay focused. I watched the few cars ahead of me moving up, getting away, as if on a conveyor belt.
My bottom was rocking… pushing the car up the incline and my teeth were locked in concentration. I held my finger on the indicator switch in readiness. I mumbled supplications to the drivers around me. “Please don’t stop, please, I can’t change gear, please keep going, please don’t get in my way…”
That was when I saw it… a gap in the flow of traffic on my right. ‘Come on girl. You can make it.’ I urged playing with the accelerator pedal, my ears now fine tuned to the noises under the bonnet, and my body understanding every vibration. There was now just one car between me and the junction.
Holding the car at a steady twenty, I grimaced when the engine began to shake. It was as if it were trying to free itself from the engine mountings. At best, I might, just might, get one more gear change out of the clapped out clutch.
I could hear the Bluebird screaming at me, telling me to change down. “Not possible.” I yelled above the roar of the engine. My eyes widened in blessed wonder when suddenly there was no other car in front. I just needed to cross those white lines and I was away. A nun tootling along in a Morris Minor, her eyes just visible above the steering wheel had opened up the gap I had been praying for. Should I ever be summoned on the matter I might have risked the wrath of St Peter and kissed her full on the lips. Timing was everything. I leaned on the accelerator and watched the needle hit thirty miles an hour. I felt the Bluebird sigh with relief. My eyes locked on to the gap in the traffic. I couldn’t believe it! I allowed my shoulders to relax and flexed my fingers that had a dead-mans grip on the steering wheel. Rattling like a binman’s cart the Bluebird trembled in eager anticipation. I watched the Morris Minor with the nun peering over the steering wheel cautiously approach the junction. Here she comes, my sweet, angelic little nun.
“You little darling! “ I cooed when I saw the nun was now holding up a line of traffic. I was now free to coast across the junction, then shoot off left onto the A3 and be at my mums by teatime.
‘Yaroo!’ I cried as I rolled onto the roundabout.
I checked the wing mirrors, left and then right.
I was actually grinning when it all went tits –up.
Crap! I exploded when a motorcyclist, clearly tired of being stuck behind the elderly nun swung out from behind the Morris. I slammed on the brakes and watched in horror when he rolled his bike over and on his arse slid across my path. The car behind must have slammed on his anchors because he careened past me on the inside and went into a lazy spin and then slammed broadside into a lamppost. And while all this mayhem was going on around me I remained fixated on the Bluebird’s engine. I mustn’t stall the car. That was when I felt the thump and heard the scream of twisted metal on the driver’s side. The Bluebird rocked violently when a Ford Focus punched my offside. All around me was chaos, cars were slamming into each other, more cars mounted the pavement, and horns blasted their annoyance. I had straightened up. The engine hadn’t stalled and I was in second gear. Thinking I can’t possibly drive the last ten miles in second gear I pushed down on the clutch and felt no resistance…. nothing! I had no choice. The car was stuck in second gear forever.
I thought it was time I got away.
Pressing the gas pedal to the floor, I urged the Bluebird on. I swung the car over to the right and then lurched forward missing the fist-waving motorcyclist by inches. I could never understand why drivers, with their life about to be forfeited, tended to lean on the horn when surely, taking evasive action, would have been a more useful occupation!
While mayhem broke out all around me I remained above it all. This was not a disaster of my making. It was not my problem. My problem was how to get the Bluebird, stuck in second gear all the way across South London to my Mums flat in Earlsfield.
To muffle the engine noise I wound up the window. Furious drivers, having leapt from their cars, were now blaming each other. I negotiated the Bluebird through the debris, bits of twisted metal, shards of glass, and lumps of plastic. Without a backward glance, I roared across the junction departing the scene it would take an army of authorities all day to sort out.
Safely across the junction I looked into my rear mirror. Some way off I could see blue flashing lights.
The Bluebird’s engine was pouring out black smoke and rattling on it’s mountings and all I could think about was me a having a nice cuppa and a biscuit when I got to my Mums flat.
I kissed the palm of my hand slapped it down on the dashboard. “Yeah baby” I yelled above the engine noise a few miles from my Mum’s flat. To all intents and purposes I was pretty much home, high and dry. Like a warm breeze a feeling of divine serenity swept over me.
I rejected the notion some kind of divine intervention must have intervened to get me through that multiple pile-up, without me getting a scratch. I put it down to my superlative driving skills… surely! I also discounted the notion that the St Christopher swinging on a chain hooked over my rear-view mirror had played a part in my salvation. To believe such a notion, I might as well give credence to the poor deluded folk who claim to have a piece of toast with the face of Jesus. Actually… I do know of one such claimant. Tommy Lawson has his piece of toast in a gilt frame on his living room wall. I have studied it, and can categorically say I saw no such image, which was good because I really can’t be doing with challenges to my blind-sighted agnostic views.
Of course, my views count for no more than any other person’s. I could be wrong. It’s been known…just the once mind.
Of course it was entirely possible a Bishop, one who knows nothing of me, in the course of one of his frequent discussions with God, had mistakenly given the Big Man, my name, and contact details. Not for the first time I wondered if I was overdue for a check-up from the neck-up?
I shook my head and this helped reengage my normal brain, the one that from time to time would go on vacation.
I was willing the car through the streets of Merton and then on through the leafy lanes of Wimbledon, skirting the Common and avoiding the main roads. Somehow, we, made it as far as Earlsfield, and then, just four blocks from my Mums flat, the Bluebird developed a death rattle.
I could hear the engine gasping for breath. I eased her gently into the kerb and got upset. My Mum’s flat was only two streets away.
A tear coursed down my cheek. It was time to put this brave soul to rest. My fingers refused to move. I wasn’t sure that I had the courage to put her out of her misery? I was now weeping openly, my chest heaving painfully. The engine was trembling like an injured sparrow lying helpless on its side, its dim eyes pleading for relief. I tried once more to turn the key. Only I had the right to end its life. At the height of this agony, a breeze, as warm as a whisper, soothed my brow. This was followed closely by a faint wheezing gasp from under the bonnet and then silence. The hesitant rumbling beneath my feet had stopped
I watched the dashboard lights flicker off -on –and then off one last time. I sat there for some time, tearful and wondered if it was all over? That was when it hit me. I gasped. The Bluebird, in one final act of devotion had saved me from my own weakness. She had known that I couldn’t make my trembling hands turn the key. In one last selfless act she lifted the burden of guilt from my crumpled shoulders.
Some time later, having composed myself, I climbed out of the car and stretched the crick in my back. I walked around to the front of the car and with great reverence I placed one hand on the bonnet. I could still feel the warmth of its once beating heart.
I sighed and wiped a dribble of snot on my sleeve.
The Bluebird was now silent. Quiet as a grave. I watched as thin wisps of steam crept lazily from the grille and settled like tears on the headlamps. I gasped and had to fight to get air past a painful lump in my throat. (I know, cheesy–Don’t say it!)
Not a person of any particular religious persuasion I did my best to remember my Sunday School Church meetings, compulsory as I remember, and mumbled through what I could remember of the Lord’s Prayer. I started out all right, but then in places it lapsed into the graveside committal prayer and then in other parts, the marriage vows. This simple dedication to the Bluebird seemed to give me closure. And with this clarity I suddenly remembered…. ‘Crap! Julie’s going to go ape.’
It took me four trips to transfer my tools and other paraphernalia from the deceased Bluebird to my Mum’s flat. We ate in my Mums kitchen while I told her about my journey and the demise of our car.
‘Oh dear! Art, how will you manage without a car?’
‘No idea Mum,’ I said with a shrug ‘But I’ll think of something.’
Having no transport was a killer blow. I couldn’t see a plumbing company taking me on with no means of transport. I was going to have to get the Transit, and risk having it taken from me. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I now had Julie stuck on the remote moors of Devon to worry about. She now had no car.
I decided the wisest course of action would be for me to delay telling her about the Bluebird until I had found a job. That way I could sweeten the blow. Or, could I find some means of finding her another car? That would work. I could then drive that down to Devon, swap it for the Transit and use that to get back to London.
My mind went into overdrive, who did I know who might lend me a car? Buying one was out of the question. Funny how names and faces surface when you need them and I remembered the name of an old friend. I caught a bus to Wimbledon.
Feeling wretched, like a tragic figure from a Charles Dickens novel, wringing my hands, and feeling, ever so umble, I paid an unexpected visit to a musician friend. Pete Turner and I hadn’t been in touch for over a year. Pete had a second hand car business, and he was a bass player in a scratch band I put together. We only did a few gigs before we all went our different ways.
I had no idea if he was still in business.
Pete listened patiently and looked genuinely touched by the fix I was in.
‘I don’t mind what car it is Pete,’ I said. ‘I just need something that is legal and reliable. Do you have one you can’t shift, any old banger?’
Surveying the thirty or so cars crammed onto his forecourt Pete scratched his chin.
‘How about the green Vauxhall Astra estate over the back there?’ He said pointing over the car roofs to the far corner of the used car lot.
I checked the car out as if I was a regular punter. ‘That’s a real nice car Pete but I haven’t got four hundred quid.’
‘I know that Art,’ said Pete, laying a hand on my shoulder. ‘You and I have been mates a long time. Take the car. It’s yours. Come over to the office, I’ll get you the keys and we’ll do the paperwork.
I was mortified with embarrassment but I couldn’t afford to turn the offer down.
After thanking him I drove away with a pretty decent estate car complete with road tax and an MOT.
With just one phone call I had the Bluebird’s insurance transferred across to the Astra. Result! Yeah! I was mobile again.
What I needed to do now was to get the Astra down to Julie. Not today. I was too knackered.
Back at my mums, I decided I would ring Julie to let her know that I had arrived safely but I wouldn’t tell her about the Bluebird. I was thinking it might be better to hand her the keys of the Astra… and then give her the bad news.
Now, if I could only find a job that would be perfect.
That evening, at my mums flat, she and I were dunking Digestive biscuits in our tea and idly chatting when I decided I would tell her about Pete and the car.
‘I went to Wimbledon today to see an old bass player mate of mine Pete, who you’ve never met. Pete’s also a car dealer.’
‘Oh that’s nice dear. I expect he was pleased to see you?’
‘Yeah,’ I said wistfully. ‘It was nice to catch up and chat about old times, but the main reason I called in on him was to ask a favour. He’s such a nice bloke….’ I stopped talking to watch half of my digestive biscuit sink without trace into my tea. ‘D’ya know he let me have one of his cars for nothing?’ I said scalding my fingers probing for the soggy remains.
‘Oh!’ She said surprised ‘He has more than one then?’
‘Yes Mum,’ I laughed. ‘Pete’s a car dealer.’
‘That’s nice dear.’ She said and used a pair of sugar tongs to rescue a piece of biscuit from her tea. ‘Oh. That reminds me,’ she said reaching across to a notepad by the phone. ‘Someone rang while you were out. A Harry Cooper wants you to ring him back.’
I frowned. The name rang a bell. I took the page from her. Then the penny dropped… Perfect Plumbers! Mum had written.
Harry Cooper was the proprietor of a central London plumbing company. I’d called him up a few days ago; only to be fobbed off by a guy on the other end of the phone telling me Harry was out for the rest of the day. I left my phone number and explained a little about my experience and said I was moving up to London and needed a job. I never expected to hear from them.
This bit of news had to amount for something… didn’t it?
I picked up the phone and dialed the number. The burring went on for some time.
‘Hello George speaking, Perfect Plumbers.’
I recognised the voice. This was the guy I spoke to the other day
‘Oh. Hi. It’s me again. Art Blakely… we spoke on the phone the other day… I asked about a plumbing job… Harry called my home and asked I ring him back.’
The line went quiet. I could hear muttered voices in the background and then a man came on the line, his voice was sharp, snappy, this was a man who was used to making decisions. This could only be Harry. I was right.
‘Hi Art…. Harry Cooper here. You rang about a job. I’ve been looking at the list of your experiences and if you can do half of what you claim, I want you on my team. Can you get here for three today. It’ll take me about an hour to show you the ropes.’
‘Sure no problem.’ I said breathless from the pace of the conversation.
‘D’ya know where we are?’
‘Oh. Yeah… no problem.’ I said lying through my teeth, anxious not to say anything that might stall the momentum. ‘I’ll be there at three. Thanks Harry.’ I heard more muttered voices… instructions being thrown out. The line went dead. I stared at the handset. I was in a state of shock. Had I just been given a job?
With parking costs what they were in Central London I used the bus and then tube to get to Victoria where I had no trouble locating the offices of Perfect Plumbers. I was surprised. I had half expected the firm to be a tin-pot, sleazy operation run from a dingy office under a railway arch. Instead, Harry Cooper had impressive offices in the basement of a block of four-story Georgian Houses.
I think I might have done a hop and a skip after leaving Perfect Plumbers. Not only did Harry give me a job, he had also handed me the keys to a company van. Whahay! Result.
This really changed things. For starters, I could now dump the hot Transit. Getting shot of that would be a huge load off my mind.
Today was Thursday. Tomorrow would be Good Friday. I was crossing Battersea Bridge and from the height advantage of the company’s Mazda van, I had a good view of the Thames at high tide. The blue sky shimmering like diamonds on the fast flowing river had me so excited that for a moment I lost sight of how my family in Devon had to be suffering. I had an image of them shivering in the cold and wet. The experience brought me down to earth with a jolt.
Last night at my Mum’s flat Julie and I spoke on the phone. The intercourse felt awkward, as if we were strangers.
She asked me how the drive up to London went.
‘Oh. Not bad, traffic was okay.’
‘Trip was uneventful then?’
I froze. Did she suspect something, had she guessed the Bluebird had died?
‘I had a few problems getting here, ’ I said. ‘I’ll tell you all about it when I get back tomorrow… Mum’s here, she wants to say hello.’
That got me off the hook and I hadn’t had to tell any lies. I left Mum chatting to her.
Mum’s sofa bed didn’t provide me with the best night’s sleep ever. It wasn’t just the bed. I was worried how Julie would take the news her beloved Bluebird was extinct. I would hand her the keys to the Astra and then prostrate my head on the block.
Shortly after 6:0 AM, leaving Perfect Plumbers van parked up near my mum’s flat I set off in the Astra. It was Good Friday. I was hoping the traffic wouldn’t be too bad. Compared to the journey up to London in the ailing Bluebird, the run in the Astra was a dream. After a few delays crossing the suburbs of south London, I hit the A3 at a run.
I had Radio 2 on, listening to pop music. Now quite familiar with the route I was able to drive at a leisurely pace. Twelve-thirteen I pulled up on the driveway of Moors Cottage. Without a car Julie wouldn’t have been able to get out to buy food, so I stopped in the mini-market in town and stocked up with groceries. My face was all smiles when laden with shopping I walked into the house. Julie wasn’t smiling!
‘What’s that car on the drive and where’s my Bluebird?’
I explained what happened.
‘I hate green cars!’
‘All green cars?’
‘Yeah. Pretty much.’
‘It’s a great motor,’ I protested, ‘It drives like a dream and … it has road tax and an MOT.’
‘It’s not great. It’s gross. I hate green cars.’ She snapped, arms across her chest.
‘You’re being unreasonable Julie,’ I said. ‘Take it out for drive and I promise you’ll love it.’
‘I loved my Bluebird.’
‘Yes I know you did,’ I said shame-faced. ‘And I’m sorry it’s gone. Would it help if I told you that she died peacefully and not in a road accident?’ The look she gave was a “No!”
‘I know you Art Blakely and I bet you drove that poor thing into the ground. What did you do? Forget to top up the oil I bet? I bet you abused the poor thing’
She had a point. I had to confess, I’d done all of the above. ‘It was a car Julie, not a mule.’ I protested.
I couldn’t blame Julie. She had had the car from new and with its low-slung spoilers and high-spec -mod cons and gleaming white bodywork she was very proud of it. For it’s age the car was a looker. It took a while for her to come around but eventually Julie had to agree the new car would to be more reliable.
Over the course of the evening, Julie stopped glaring at me. I wouldn’t go so far as to say she had forgiven me.
After spending half an hour out on the drive personalizing her new car, I sensed Julie had calmed down. When she walked back in the kitchen she was in better spirits.
Easter Friday: The leaden sky was oppressive. The rain was coming down in sheets. We ate the hot cross buns we had toasted on the Aga.
In the afternoon I put a beef casserole in the oven and joined Julie dozing in front of the TV. Eleven pm. I took myself off to the bathroom. The shower curtain, having lain in wait for me fell upon me like a wet weekend. So far, this particular Easter was proving to be spectacularly unremarkable. In my view, eating a few stale hot cross buns was never going to engender the Glorious Devon spirit and when I climbed out of bed at four minutes past seven on the Saturday morning, my mood was no more elevated than the previous day.
While other folk were making the most of the long weekend break from work or school, Julie and I were huddled around the Aga nibbling stale hot-cross buns, and every now and again checking the dark brooding sky hoping for a break in the constant drizzle so that we could walk Solomon and Rats. The Bassett hound never worried what the weather was like, but Rat’s the Yorkie, had dense fur, and five minutes in the rain and he resembled a vacuum cleaner blockage!
Living in Devon was supposed to have liberated us, freed us from the bone-grinding poverty of our past, instead, we were living like impoverished fugitive bank robbers. Just leaving the house was an exercise in subterfuge. Fortunately, other than the Blakely’s who owned the farm there were no neighbours to gossip about our clandestine behaviour. Maybe it was the holiday weekend thing that got me going, all of a sudden, I got angry with us… us as a family. We shouldn’t be living like this! It was time we got over being scared to show our faces in public. This was not how it was supposed to be. We needed to buck our ideas up and do something… anything to get out of this damp, muddy place, where the sun never seemed to shine and the locals treated us as if we had scabies. Perhaps we could have done more to socialise? Maybe then the locals would stop spreading rumours that the Blakely family who was renting Moors was practitioners of the Dark Arts. I was constantly surprised how frequently witches and curses and shrunken heads were openly spoken of in these parts.
It was Easter Sunday. Julie and I were eating toast at the kitchen table when a loud rap on our door brought us to our feet with a start. We stopped chewing and stared wide-eyed across the table at each other. Abandoning my half-eaten breakfast, I ran out to the hallway and threw myself back against the wall. Julie took up a similar stance on the other side of the door. She was mouthing insensible instructions to me and getting annoyed that I was crap at lip-reading. I leant forward hoping to get the measure of our caller whose outline could be seen through the panels of frosted glass in the door. My heart stalled. I saw the hazy outline of a thickset man wearing a dark blue sweater.
‘Crap!’ I said almost, but not quite, inaudibly.
‘What?’ Julie demanded.
‘He’s got a dark blue jumper, that’s what!’
‘Customs and Excise.’ I whispered through clenched teeth. (For the sake of brevity, you can take it as read the rest of this conversation continued in a similar vein, through clenched teeth.)
I saw Julie’s eyes widen. ‘Oh my God!’ She said. ‘What are we going to do?
I put my fingers to my lips. ‘Shush. We’ll pretend we’re not in.’
‘Hello. Mr and Mrs Blakely,’ an unfamiliar voice called out from the other side of the door, ‘can you open the door please? I know that you are both there. I can see you through the glass.’
I inched back along the wall, out of the sightline of the glass panel.
‘Open the door.’ Julie hissed. ‘Else he wont go away.’
‘No. You open the door’.
Bang…bang. Causing me to flinch a fist hammered on the door. There was only one type of people who’d bang on a door like that, calling on folk unannounced. ‘It’s the Bailiffs.’ I hissed to Julie.
‘Just open the bloody door.’ Julie snapped.
I leaned my head forward to see if he had gone. Nope. He was still there. I felt my blood run cold. How, on earth, I wondered, was it possible they’d found us all the way out here? I’d been so cautious in making sure only my brother Ben and his wife Alice had our forwarding address.
‘Oh no!’ Julie said.
‘If it is Customs and Excise, then they’ll be after the Bluebird that you promised to hand back.’
My jaw dropped. She was right, I had promised to return it. In fact what I’d told the Customs and Excise Duty Recovery officer on the phone that day was “I categorically swear to drop it off at your Brighton compound this week.”
Obviously, I had no intention of just handing it over … to do so would have left us with no transport other than a beat up old Ford Escort van that they’d only allowed me to keep on the grounds that they could not legally remove the means by which I might earn a living.
“No.” I’d told the guy when he insisted that he collect the car, “I really wouldn’t want to put you to all that trouble. I give you have my word. I will let hand it over.”
I shuddered when I remembered his curt reply.
‘If you don’t, Mr Blakely, I will track you down. You wont be able to hide from us you know? We’re like the Canadian Mounties, we always get our man.’
I suppose getting caught was inevitable. This was my comeuppance, the only hope I had was the car they were seeking to impound had been dumped in south London. They couldn’t take what I don’t have could they?
‘Yeah, well they’re too late,’ I said to Julie. ‘The Bluebird’s gone.’
‘Mr and Mrs Blakely!’ The voice from behind the door called out.
I almost shouted shut the hell up, how were we supposed to think with him yelling at us through the door and peering through the letterbox?
She leaned closer and with her hand shielding her mouth Julie said gravely. ‘Yes I know that, but he might take the Astra instead?’
My brow furrowed. I felt my blood heat up.
Jeez he can’t do that! I’ve only had it two days. That can’t be right. I threw the door now as mad as hell.
‘Hello your holiness’. I said stepping to one side allowing Julie to see our visitor.
I must have stared at our visitor’s dog collar far too long. My face must have looked like I was John Christie opening the door to the police.
I briefly took hold of the man’s proffered hand that had the texture of a dead jellyfish.
‘Hello. My name is Father O’ Reilly,’ he explained. ‘I am the vicar in this parish. Are you both church goers?’
‘Er yes, I mean we were, only I must confess, my devotions have faltered of late.’ I looked askance at my wife, whose countenance was one of contempt for my irreverent dishonesty. In her view, telling lies to vicars, priests, nuns, the Pope, and bucket rattlers who were collecting for the church roof fund, (why is it that Churches always need money for a new friggin roof?) was an unpardonable sin, whilst I, on the other hand, had no such Catholic qualms.
‘My husband is an antagonist.’
‘Agnostic.’ I reminded her.
Religion of any flavour had always been an enigma for me. What perplexed me, without causing me sleepless nights, was which of God’s devotees’, always assuming such an omnipotent being existed, and he wasn’t just a nutty professor hiding behind a curtain as in the Wizard of OZ, really did have his ear? A few years back, I came up with a foolproof strategy for ensuing me the best shot of afterlife security, should Heaven, or some such establishment exist. In my head at least, I signed up to all the major religions. By adopting a purely cerebral endorsement of these faiths I could avoid a lot knee-bending, or having to give up my bacon butties, or agreeing to have my penis mutilated by a robed man with a blunt knife. Thinking along the lines it was entirely conceivable that more than one of these doctrines could be “The One True Religion” I took them all on board, metaphysically speaking. And just in case God regarded anyone practicing religion to be as mad as a box of frogs I signed up to agnosticism too.
Flicking her head to one side, thereby indicating, the direction in which our visitor needed to be led, as if I had entirely lost the use of my faculties, Julie said.
‘Ask him in, numbnuts.’
‘Won’t you come in Father O’ Leary?’ I said finding my voice deliberately mis-naming him entirely for my own amusement. I shouldn’t have done that. Winding up men of the cloth was not going to help my application for eternal life when in due course my sins were confronted, by God’s door-steward, St Peter.
‘O’ Reilly!’ he corrected me.
‘Oh really.’ I said smiling benignly.
‘O’ Reilly.’ He repeated, giving me a weird look. Weird looks; I concluded were currently plat de jour.
We led him into the kitchen, the hub of the house, only because it was the only room that didn’t smell of damp or soot. It did however stink of diesel oil. That was the smelly Aga!
‘Please… take a seat father’. Julie said and the arranged a chair for him at the yellow Melamine table.
Julie sat facing the priest. I sat down at the end of the table. Julie gave me a hefty kick on the shin.
What Now? God! Could I do nothing right? Do I not have a right to sit at my own table?
With her hands steepled under her chin Julie smiled angelically at the priest. I groaned. Christ this was like being in a confession box… not that I had ever ventured into one. God those must be scary! You would never know who might be sitting on the other side of the screen.
‘The father would like a cup of tea.’ Julie said.
Her eyes messaged me; she wasn’t taking any crap, go make the tea.
‘That would be nice.’ O’ Reilly said smiling at me.
I thought he looked a little uncomfortable under Julie’s glazed stare.
He said, ‘milk, no sugar thanks.’
‘I’ll get it then, shall I?’ I snapped at my wife and thinking this could be a Father Ted sketch.
I splashed a tiny amount of milk in his tea; we had little enough for our own needs.
I pushed across the tin of biscuits.’ Please take a biscuit.‘ I said.
It wasn’t till I tried one myself I understood why father O’ Reilly had only eaten just the one.
‘If you do don’t mind me asking,’ I said. ‘Why are you here father.’
‘I am here;’ O’ Reilly said sounding like he was addressing his flock. ‘To introduce myself and to find out a little about yer good selves.’
Julie looked at me as if to say you deal with it. I had no idea what to say? How much could we afford to reveal? We are after all, fugitives, in a sense. He would want to know where we’d come from, why we’d moved, and why we chose this spot to live? I winced when an accurate kick from Julie caught me on the shine bone. Her aim was improving. I had no idea how her blind kicks could be so accurate? Echolocation I decided. Did that make her a bat?
‘You see,’ O’ Reilly continued.
I could see that he was worried what my hands were doing under the table. I was rubbing my shinbone. I stopped doing it and sat bolt upright like I would in a church and gave him my undivided attention.
‘In a small village like Ingleleigh, (pop: 43… and that’s counting Mrs Butterworth’s, eldest boy, who is not quite the ticket and spends a lot of time “away” if you get my drift), people like to gossip you know?’
I didn’t much care for the wink he gave me.
‘Far better, don’t you think, I tell the villagers about yer good selves rather than have them spread gossip?’
I nodded like I understood and said. ‘Goodness I would hate be gossiped about.’ Actually I didn’t give a crap. ‘Is that what folk do in Ingleleigh then… talk about the neigbours?’
‘Oh, well you see there is not a lot else to do. Life is very slow in these parts, not a lot happens you know.’
‘Oh well, ‘ I said. ‘In that case Julie and I are happy to say a little about ourselves.’ I laughed,’ nothing too bedroom-y though.’ I laughed again. I couldn’t seem to stop myself speaking with an Irish accent and thinking about Father Ted. ‘I wouldn’t want to be embarrassing your good self Father O Leary.’
I got another kick under the table, courtesy of Julie’s boot, on the mark, on the shinbone.
‘O’ Reilly.’ The priest reminded me.
I sensed my little game of deliberately mispronouncing his name was beginning to piss him off. Good! O’ Reilly…O Leary… O’ Really. O’ who gives a crap? The guy was pissing me off
‘Sorry your holiness.’ I said pointedly ignoring Julie’s glare.
Solomon was whining at the back. Julie could see I wasn’t going to get up and let him out so she left me alone with the vicar, (bad move.) I thought I might have a little fun at the expenses of with our guest. Acting like I didn’t want Julie to hear I leant over the table and said to Father O Reilly.
‘I don’t like to say too much in front of my wife father, only Mrs Blakely gets embarrassed.’
‘That’s ok.’ O’Reilly said leaning closer.
‘Only, we have another son… one that lives in the attic.’ I flicked my head up. ‘We have to keep him secure. He is kept in restraints.’
O’ Reilly sat back.
Waving my hands as if to calm the man I said. “It’s okay, he’s not dangerous…. just as long as he takes his medication, and Julie is very good at making sure he does.’
‘That’s a real shame. How old is this… this son you have?’
‘Forty-two next birthday, 29th February actually.’
‘Well Art… is it okay to call you Art?’
I shrugged. ‘Sure.’
‘We all have our cross to bear Art.’
I looked back at the door. Through the window I could see Julie in the garden.
‘There’s more.’ I said gravely leaning across the table. O’Reilly sat back in his chair.
‘I have done time?’
‘Yeah you know… porridge, I’ve done a bit of bird.’
‘Oh I see. In London was it?’
‘London! Gosh no I wish! I was in Broadmoor for a spell. I’m out on license. They keep tabs on me. You might have seen me on Crime Watch…. The Barrow Road murders?’
This was more fun than I’d had in years. O’Reilly’s face was a picture.
‘N… n… no,’ O Reilly blustered. He looked back at the front door. ‘I don’t ever recall…’
When I slammed my hand down on table. I thought he cacked himself. ‘Anyway that’s all in the past. I am now a reformed character.’ I said. ‘I can’t believe you don’t remember me.’
I leaned back and turned my head in both directions as if to show my profile. ‘Remember my face now… The Barrow Road murders? No? Still doesn’t ring any bells? I can get the newspaper clips down from the loft if you like?’ I looked up at the celling and then in a husky whisper, ‘I just have be careful I don’t disturb Boris.’
‘Yeah. Our son… the one I mentioned?’ I jabbed a thumb at the ceiling.
When Julie returned she saw O’Reilly was about to leave. He looked flustered. ‘Are you off already Father?’
‘Y…yes Mrs Blakely,’ the Priest said retreating backwards headed for the front door, ‘I must be on my way. And thank you for the tea.’ O’Reilly looked up at the ceiling and said. ‘I shall pray for Boris and for your husband Mrs Blakely.’
I smiled at Julie who cast me a look.
After the priest had gone Julie faced me. She had her hands on her hips. ‘What did you say to him?’
‘Me!’ I said. ’I didn’t say anything.’
‘Liar. That man’s face was a white as a sheet. And who the hell is Boris?’
‘Aw, take no notice the man’s nuts,’ I said.’ I don’t think he’ll bother us again. I also doubt we’ll get an invite to the Church fete.’
Easter Sunday– getting dark–late afternoon I had to get back to London. I packed clean clothes into a gym bag and then made myself a cheese sandwich for the journey. Saying goodbye to Julie was another of those, foot-shuffling: don’t know where to look, moments.
For the past two and a half years, Julie, our kids, and myself, had gone through some pretty tough times. I could only hope that when we came out of this we would be stronger as a family. We’d emerge stronger individuals.
When I set off in the Ford Transit the swirling snow hadn’t yet settled on the frozen ground. I took heart from the green buds appearing on a few trees. Whilst we weren’t yet out of the coldest winter I could ever remember yellow and purple crocuses and the daffodils bravely defying the frost gave me hope. I saw a pair of Chaffinches busily checking out a suitable nest site way ahead of mating time. Life carried on. I wouldn’t mind being a Chaffinch.
I had been living in London for almost two weeks. Julie and my two boys were still in Devon. My daughter Louise, who was a student at a dance academy, lived with four other girls in a rented house in Basildon and most nights I would get to speak to each of them on the phone.
My boss, Harry, rather than use his other callout plumbers now had me to doing all the emergency night time and weekend jobs. Which was great because the extra money meant I could now save up the deposit to rent a house. I was earning good money again. Things were looking up. At this rate three, maybe four weeks, I could start looking to rent a house. Living at my mum’s had been a great help but I wanted us to be a family again.
Finally I got the money together and went in search of a house. Jeez, renting in London was expensive. I started looking at houses in the Streatham/Mitcham areas where the rents weren’t exorbitant and I could drive into central London where all my work was without too much hassle. One thing I was sure of. I wasn’t about to repeat the mistake I made taking on Moors Cottage. This time I would take my time, look at several options before I signed up.
Streatham in its heyday with its airy green spaces and the natural spring waters freely available from the well now hidden away behind the cinema on the High Street, was much favoured by the Victorian and Edwardian genteel.
Streatham hadn’t changed. Many of those once grand family houses are now owned by unscrupulous slumlords that had ripped the guts out of them, put up paper thins walls, and installed crummy shared bathrooms, and then let them out to the poorest of the poor. The one time elegant front entrances that in the past might have had a bell pull were now disfigured by a battery of gas and water meters, one for each poky room.
Today few would choose to live in some parts of the town, the areas where the drunks slept and died of the cold among the gravestones in the cemeteries. Along the High Street, begging for money the homeless hid in the doorways. On the common you’d find the prostitutes, and the bad guys who’d sell you all manner of crap that might get you wasted, or get you dead.
And yet, on the edges of town, out of sight of all this crap, there were streets of nice houses, built around crescents lined with flowering cherry trees. It was on one such street that I took a look inside, number 133 Cherry tree Crescent. The whitewashed, three-bed, semi had a huge ceanothus bush in the front garden. Its vibrant blue flowers had attracted a number of bees.
I shook hands with Mr and Mrs Brown at the front door. The interior had been recently redecorated and had new carpets. The house was their pension pot they explained. The back garden wasn’t huge but it had an ancient crooked Laburnham tree that was ablaze with yellow flowers. Mrs Brown was at pains to point out the “No Dogs or Pets” clause.
Hmmm. Once again, Julie and I were going to have to keep our dogs out of sight. I didn’t imagine we could keep them a secret for long. Our dopey Bassett Hound, Solomon, wouldn’t cause anyone a problem, but Rats our Yorkie, he could be a noisy little devil when it came to callers. I put my trust in Mr and Mrs Brown letting us keep the dogs when they saw we were good tenants that kept the place nice, and paid the rent on time. I duly signed a six-month contract. Mrs Brown handed me the keys.
After I shut the door behind my new landlords, I fell against it and sighed. I could have cried.
On the drive back to my mums, hardly paying any attention to the roads, my head was already working on the details of how to get my family and our possessions up from Devon.
It was in a phone conversation with my younger brother Lenny that I inadvertently let slip I had no money to pay for a removal lorry. He suggested that I give Sean Bell a call. It had completely slipped my mind that Sean, a long-standing friend of the family, and a kindly soul, had a modest house removal business.
At first I balked at the idea of taking more charity. I’d had enough of eating humble pie. Asking Sean to do me a favour felt like yet another blow to my already battered dignity.
‘I don’t know Lenny. Thanks all the same, but I worry he might be offended.’
‘Don’t be daft,’ Lenny insisted, ‘Sean’s a great guy. He can only say no. What you got to lose?
‘Thanks Lenny, but I really can’t,’ I said, and then thought what choice you got?
‘Ring him.’ Lenny insisted.
‘No…no., its’ ok,’ I said. ‘You’re right. I need a favour. I will ring him.’
I bit back on my pride and punched in his phone number. Ten seconds – fifteen seconds. He hadn’t picked up. With luck, he won’t be home. To save my wounded pride I would leave him a message. Then he picked up.
‘Hello…. Sean Bell speaking.’
‘Ahem,’ I cleared my throat. ‘Oh…h…. hi Sean,’ I said tripping over my words, ‘it’s Art… Art Blakely… Lenny’s brother.’ I was at the point of hanging up when Sean interrupted.
‘Hey. Art,’ He said brightly, ‘long time-no-see. How’re you doing? I hear you’ve moved to Devon. How’s that working out?’
Had I detected I a hint of: I know already! I took a deep breath and said, ‘to be honest Sean, that’s why I am ringing. I need a favour.’
‘Hey, Art…we’re mates, and you only need ask buddy… It’s a shame the Devon thing didn’t work out. Don’t say another word. I’ll help you move house. Lenny will help out, and it’ll be fun.’
Fun! I frowned. Sean had been tipped off. Lenny. I thought. My brother Lenny must have called him ahead of me.
‘Well, the thing is Sean, Julie and I… we need to move up to London and I was wondering if you had a removal lorry that I could borrow?’
‘Listen,’ he said. ‘You set a moving date, and I will provide the lorry and help you move.’
‘Well hang on Sean, the thing is…’ I hesitated. ‘The thing is… I don’t have any money. I mean I can pay for your fuel costs, and that’s to be expected… but…’
‘Hey, Art. That’s fine. You pay for the diesel and we’re all good eh?’
After I put down the phone a fresh wave of guilt and embarrassment consumed me. I should have told him how much crap Julie and I had accumulated over the years.
Tuesday. 11th April– the day before MD. (Moving Day).
I had arranged to take a few days off work.
At my Mums flat in Wandsworth I was up at the crack of dawn. Today was a biggie… but not as biggie as tomorrow–Moving day.
I planned to drive the Transit van down to Devon and load that up with some of the smaller items, leaving the bigger stuff for Sean’s lorry. I was worried the removal lorry he was lending me might not be big enough, him being a small firm, I didn’t think he would have anything as big as the monster that I hired when I moved down there. I wished I had warned him how much stuff we had. The Transit van’s road tax was due to expire, so this was probably the last time I’d need use it. When I got back to London with it I was going to dump it in a side road and leave the keys under the wheel arch, and then do same as I did for the Bluebird, let the Inland Revenue know where they could find it.
I set off in the Transit van thinking I will top up the fuel tank on the motorway.
I had a fresh bag of Liquorice allsorts. That’s me sorted. I was excited, I can tell you.
On the M3, feeling the usual guilt and a bag of nerves I paid for the fuel using Smithy’s petrol card.
On the motorway again, in my rush to get off the forecourt I remembered I had forgotten to pick up another bag of liquorice allsorts.
I steered the Transit onto the bungalow’s driveway.
It felt weird me being back at Moors Cottage. This lonely bungalow nestled on the edge of Dartmoor was supposed to have been a base from which we could plan our fresh start. I had a hollow feeling in my gut standing on the drive. I turned full-circle taking in the rolling moors, and the dull clumps of heather. I watched a buzzard, head down, circling on the thermals, searching for a rabbit. They came back to me, memories of nine months ago when I stood on this drive so excited. Now what, another fresh start? How many more? God, life can be confusing, or is it the case we make it so?
I had stopped to buy some groceries in the local Co-op. I was going to cook us a meal on the Aga. I hoped this would be the last time I ever had to cook anything one on that smelly old contraption.
When the dogs didn’t bark when I slammed the van door I took that as a sign Julie and the boys must be out walking them.
‘Hello,’ I called out. ‘I’m home.’ My voice echoed down the hallway. No one was home. There were boxes, packed up, all around. They had been busy. I dropped my bags in the hall and toured the rooms. After living away for six weeks and three days the whole place felt unfamiliar. It was as if I had never lived here, that’s how shallow my roots had been.
The rooms seemed darker… smaller. The cloying smell of oil from the Aga clung to my clothes like cobwebs.
After unpacking the groceries I set about cooking a meal. I was peeling the spuds and for some inexplicable reason I got angry. Oddly, I felt Devon was to blame for the dream not working out.
Not one to dwell on the negatives, I set my mind on looking to the future. Living in London was going to be great. Mostly I was looking forward us all living together once again, under one roof and settled… for now at least.
When Julie and I left London to live in a council house in Crawley, we had been so young. We had a baby, Robbie. That was an exciting time for us. We couldn’t wait to move out of the tiny bedsit on Springfield Lane, Wandsworth.
Thinking about that now I now wondered if the buzz I got living in London still coursed through my veins. What was it they say? “You can take the man out of the town but you can’t take the town out of the man.”
I was dishing up dinner when Julie and the boys, both dogs panting, walked in. The dogs, pleased to see me, jumped all over me. Julie gave me a peck on the cheek and then she asked me how the drive had been. Julie and I ate a lamb casserole and my two boys had veggie meals.
For the first time in nine awful months sensed that we as a family now had a purpose. We were going forwards again. The future looked bright. All we needed to do now was get the last of the packing done, and then tomorrow, we load up the vehicles and then we drive off into the sunset and another fresh start.
Having packed up everything, apart from the essentials needed for tomorrow, the tea bags, kettle, and a few other essentials, by eleven o clock, feeling knackered we were all in bed.
I pulled back the curtains across our bedroom window that faced east and marveled at the sunrise, a vista of purple, vivid orange, startling red and a soft yellow. I took this as an omen. Things, from this moment on, were all going to change and that all would be well.
I rousted everyone out of bed and after a fried breakfast we set to work finishing the packing. We were moving not just out of Devon, but also out of the two and half years of crap that Julie and I had had to endure.
In a phone call with Lenny who rang to say they were just leaving, I had thought, urgh, I’d hoped they were well on their way by now? Never mind. There was better news; my omen was holding up, Carl my nephew would be coming too. Another strong back would be good.
Sean and the others should be well on their way by now.
The morning dragged on. The hands on my watch seemed in no particular hurry. We had lunch. Cheese sandwiches. From time to time I would go out onto the drive looking out for Sean and the others.
They should have been here by now. Had they had an accident or perhaps broken down?
An hour ago, the phone line went dead because I had asked BT to switch it off. Now I had no means of knowing where they were. (Remember this was years before the invention of mobile phones.)
I was still cursing myself for the having the phone taken out when we all ran to the gate at the sound of a big vehicle, approaching the bend at the bottom of the hill. We listened as the heavy sounding engine clattered ever closer. It was only the weekly grain truck for the farm.
I was hanging around outside when I turned my head towards the sound of yet another big vehicle approaching the bend. Surely this had to be them? It was only when I saw Sean and the others waving through the windscreen that I gave a whoop of joy.
I’d been careful in organizing the parking of the vehicles on the driveway. I needed to leave enough room for the removal truck. Parking anything on the narrow lane was out of the question; even a car would have blocked it completely.
I ran out to the road to see the truck reverse safely between the gateposts and had to leap aside when Sean expertly reversed the truck onto the concrete drive that now resembled a used-car-lot. Julie’s Vauxhall Astra was parked up tight to the Ford Transit, which hemmed in the rusted, clapped out Ford Escort van that was never going anywhere.
I stepped back to get a better view of the lorry. I frowned. I didn’t want to say anything but Sean’s lorry looked small. I couldn’t see us getting everything in that. Luckily, I still had the Transit and Julie’s Astra estate car.
Having settled that matter in my head, I ran around to the driver’s door to greet Sean.
I stood there stunned. I laughed. ‘Very funny, ‘ I said. ‘Looks authentic.’ I pointed at the plaster cast on his leg that went from his foot his knee. ‘It’s a joke yeah?’
‘I broke my leg.’ Sean said.
I turned full circle and slapped my hand on my forehead. ‘You have to be kidding me right? Don’t tell me you just drove that truck all the way down here from London with a broken leg!’
‘I just did. It’s fine.’
Lenny came round and held up his hands ready to help Sean climb down from the cab.
‘Sod off,’ Sean said. ‘I’m not disabled. If you get out the way I can get down on my own thanks.’
I seemed to have lost the power of speech. I had no contingency plan for this. Even if he was able to drive the truck, I doubted it was legal.
Sean hobbled off towards the house. ‘Oi! Julie,’ he called out. ‘Aint you got the kettle on yet?’
Julie promptly delegated the task to me.
‘Don’t just stand there, Art. Put the kettle on.’
While the others were able to joke around I couldn’t relax. There was much to get done. I left them drinking tea and eating cheese sandwiches while I made a start on loading the removal van. The plan was: we would finish the packing and loading the vehicles today, and then tomorrow, set of in a convoy, first thing.
It wasn’t long before we had filled the removal lorry. I did a quick tour of the house to see what was left. ‘Jeez,’ ‘I said to Julie.
I fetched Sean and showed him.
‘Bloody hell! ‘ He said. ‘I think I had better hop up inside the back of the truck and start packing things in tighter, else we are never going to get ll this stuff away.’
I could see that already.
While Sean got to work repacking the lorry the rest of us started ferrying the rest of the furniture and more loaded cardboard boxes out onto the drive.
We could be in trouble. I knew that I could lose my deposit if we didn’t clear the house. That was when Sean came to me and said.
‘I can’t get another thing in the van Art, we’ll have to try and get the rest in the Transit, and some of it in Julie’s car.’
I was thinking Julie’s car! She’ll have the two dogs, and the guinea pigs, in their cage to fit in. How’s she going to get anything else in?
We turned out attention to the Transit, loading up that.
Shaking my head I was looking down at the boxes and furniture heaped on the drive and thinking how did we get all that is in that bungalow?
‘Look at all the crap we got Julie,’ I said as if it was her fault. ‘We don’t need all this. All we ever do is move it from one attic to another.’
‘Well I am not leaving any of it here, if that’s what you was thinking.’ She said. ‘Besides what will you do with it? You can’t leave it here. You said so yourself, the house had to be clear to get our deposit back.’
I wiped my brow and looked around at Sean. ‘Got any ideas Sean?’
He shrugged. ‘We can cram some of it in Julie’s car. You’ve seen for yourself the removal van and the Transit are already packed to the gunnels and fit to burst.’ Sean looked back at the garage. The stuff we cant take we could dump in the bushes behind the garage.’
‘Nah,’ I said and pointed out the field stretching out into the distance. ‘The farmer will spot it right away.’
‘We could take the Ford Escort van,’ Carl said. ‘We’d get the rest of it inside that?’
I couldn’t make out if he was being serious or not. I gave a hollow laugh. ‘You are Joking?’ No one else was laughing.
‘Why not?’ Carl said in all seriousness.
I found it hard to put my thought into words I said, ‘because the bloody thing hasn’t been driven in months. It has been sitting up to its arse in weeds–and it has no road tax, no MOT, and no Insurance, and even if you were to get it running– never in a million years will it make to London. Hello!’ I said looking at the blank faces around me. ‘Is it me that’s suddenly gone nuts?’
‘I could get it going.’ said Carl flatly.
‘Carl will get it going, he’s great at fixing cars.’ Lenny chimed in.
‘You’ve got nothing to lose Dad.’ Robbie said.
They stared at me as if it was me who needed to wake up and smell the coffee.
‘If you leave it here, the farmer will withhold our deposit Art, you said as much yourself.’ Julie added.
‘I doubt he’d care,’ I said. ‘Most likely he’ll strip it down for spare parts.’
Engaged in this time-wasting discussion I hadn’t spotted Julie go back inside the house, When she came back out she handed the Escort van keys to Carl.
‘There you go Carl. See what you can do.’
I stared hard at my wife. ’Thanks Julie.’ I said.
‘You’re welcome hubby.’ She said and tweaked my cheek.
I was behind the garage when the surprised squeal of the van door being opened grabbed my attention. I rounded the corner in time to see Carl lean inside the van. Next thing, he leapt back waving his hands about his head.
‘Argh!” He cried. ‘Bloody cobwebs.’
‘Don’t waste your time Carl,’ I said. ‘You’ll never get that old heap running.’
‘Yeah but if I did get it going, just think, we could shift the rest of this stuff.’
The others were now eager to inspect the van. I wondered if perhaps it was just me?
‘Let’s just turn the engine over and see what happens.’ Carl said.
‘What’ll happen is it’ll most likely blow up.’ I said stepping back a few paces and pulling Daniel with me.
‘You’re probably right Art,’ Carl said and then pushed the keys into the ignition lock. ‘Stand back everyone.’
Carl turned the key. Nothing happened. Well… only a dull click. Didn’t I tell him he was wasting his time? What did he expect? The van had been idle for months; the battery will be as flat as a pancake. I had better things to do, like go check the house over. I turned to walk away when a massive bang nearly threw me to the ground. I spun around to see a pall of thick black smoke falling about our heads followed by a chorus of compulsive coughing.
I was angry now. ‘That’s it! ‘ I yelled at Carl. ‘Leave the bloody thing alone before someone gets hurt.’
‘That’s a good sign. ‘Carl said waving his hands at the fumes.
‘Let him have a go Art,’ said Lenny. ‘See if he can get it running.’
‘Yeah. What’s the harm? Sean chimed in.
Seems it was only me that cared if Carl blew himself along with the van up. The others were looking at me as if it was me that had the problem. I was thinking I might as well stop my bitching. In the end they’ll see that I was right. The bloody wreck was never going to start, and even if it did, it would never make it out of Devon, let alone get as far as London. I was just going to walk away, leave them to it; pretty soon, they’ll give up.
‘Ok, ok. Carl,’ I conceded holding up my hands. ‘I’ll tell you what: you get it going… it’s yours, to keep.’ I was joking, I meant about him getting it going, as for the van, yeah he was welcome to it. I had no need of it.
I decided I would leave them to it. I headed for the back door to the kitchen and called back over my shoulder, ‘you’ll never get it started.’
The others followed me into the kitchen leaving Carl with his head under the bonnet of the van.
After half an hour of me still working, cleaning and clearing, the others loafing about, I became irritated by their banter and their goofing around. I wondered what it was about me, in my genes that meant I had to make a drama out of everything. Perhaps I should invest in a sandwich board and go hang about in Oxford Circus and tell people the end of the world was nigh?
‘Can we all please stop messing around and get going?’ I said heading for the door. ‘We still have all that stuff on the drive to get rid of.’
‘We’re waiting for Carl.’ Julie said.
That wasn’t helping.
‘Look,’ I said annoyed. ‘Carl is not going to get that heap of crap running, so can we all please get real here?’
A sound, like a bomb going off scared the hell out of me. I was the first out on the drive. With the others crowded on my shoulder we stared at Carl, his face was blackened with soot. He was grinning. The Escort’s engine was clattering, but up and running. ‘Oh Crap!’ I groaned.
I blinked twice and scrubbed at my two-day old stubble.
It should never have happened, the van working, after months being left to rust away! I turned away from the jubilation and congratulations being heaped on my nephew. In my head I was trying to compute the implications. This was not in the master plan. I was thinking: well at least if I had the Escort on the road we could clear the rest of the crap off the drive. However, my conscience was never going to let Carl drive off in that death trap. God knows how many traffic violations it would break.
Had it been my decision, it would never have happened. But I had a mutiny on my hands. With Julie acting like the mutineer Christian Fletcher my authority didn’t count for much, Carl was taking the van.
I was thinking it was all right for them, over the past couple of years I had had enough of driving about in dodgy vans. If the police pulled him over, it was in my name!
‘Carl.’ I said getting his attention. ‘I can see that you’re determined to make an attempt at getting this van to London. Fair enough, but I insist I get you insured.’
‘Ok,’ He said and shrugged, ‘If that’ll make you happy. Whatever you say. Only it’d be criminal to leave it here.’
‘No! “ I snapped losing it. ‘You, taking it on the road… that is criminal.’
More annoyed with myself than the others, letting them upset my plans, I headed back into the house and dug out the vans documents, which I knew, were in a kitchen drawer, left behind because I was leaving the van here. With no phone in the house I had to walk to the payphone in the village to make the call. I called up my insurance company and over the phone I arranged weekend cover for the Escort.
When I returned to the bungalow Carl was, ‘fine tuning the engine,’ he said.
‘Carl,’ I said getting his attention. ‘I’ve had the van insured for the weekend, and I’ve also dug out the log book and I have signed the van over to you.’
‘Bloody hell! Thanks Art.’ Carl said straightening up and banged his head on the bonnet.
I left Carl to: “fine-tune the engine.”
‘S’okay.’ I said and went back into the kitchen. Robbie and Daniel were there.
‘Have we got any food dad?’ Robbie said. ‘I’m starving.’
I said. ‘No, you’re not starving. The children in Africa are starving, what you are is hungry.’ (Something I always told my kids whenever they complained they were starving.)
‘Sorry, there’s nothing in the house.’ I said. ‘I thought we’d get a takeaway Pizza.’ This suggestion didn’t go down well. The village pizza parlour is known for adding salmonella topping at no extra charge.
Back outside, I found Carl wiping grease from his hands on toilet tissue.
‘Van is all loaded. We’re done Art.’ Carl looked pleased with himself.
‘Well done Carl,’ I said patting him on the shoulder. I looked up at the darkening sky. ‘It’s getting cold out here, better get inside, have a hot drink.’
I let him set off without me. He called back. ‘You coming Art?’
‘You go ahead, I’ll just be a minute.’ I waved. I wanted some time out here, to be on my own.
I sat down on the bumper of the removal Lorry.
I stretched my neck and looked up at the brooding sky. Fast moving clouds driven by a brisk westerly blotted out occasional glimpses of the stars. The full moon, shrouded like a shy naked dancer, was as big as any I’d seen this year.
The sweaty tee shirt felt cold on my back. I wrapped my arms across my chest and saw a black shadow as fast as a hawk, flash across my vision. It swooped, and then disappeared. I guessed it had to have been a Noctule bat. They get quite big and tend to feed early evenings. Then I heard, some way off, the chilling cry of a screech owl. I was reminded of the tale of the Beast of Dartmoor. I could just see it now, stirring in its bone-strewn lair. I shuddered. Had the tale of this man-eating beast gotten to me? I dismissed the thought from my head. Most likely, I thought, Devon needed to be famous for something other than cream teas!
I turned full circle hoping to catch another sighting of the bat. It had gone. The wind was picking up. I suspected the weather might turn, bring on the rain.
A shriek of laughter, it was Julie, made me look back at the house. A patch of yellow, spilled out the kitchen window lit the lawn out back.
There had always been something of the night about Moors Cottage as if it had been built on a plague pit. There had been moments when my hair would stand on end at the sound of a whisper in a darkened corner, or startled by a sudden chill in a warm room. Equally alarming were the numerous occasions when doors, of their own volition, would open or close.
By nature, I am not one for all that spooky crap, but Moors Cottage and the encircling hills I have to say possessed all the elements of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
My teeth were chattering. I hesitated for a moment before heading back to the house.
The minuet I stepped through the door, Julie said.
‘The Aga isn’t working. We are freezing.’
‘I know, the oil tank has run dry. ‘I said. It’d had been a close run thing, the oil running out. First thing I did when I got here was to check the fuel gauge. I had hoped we’d be moved out before it bled dry. A refill, the minimum charge was two hundred and forty quid. We could never have found that kind of money.
The news was met with groans. It was going to be a cold night and we had no beds, only covers.
I took cold comfort from knowing in a few hours we would be on our way, driving a convoy north…heading for a new life in London.
I left the others chatting whilst I went on a tour of the Bungalow double-checking we hadn’t missed anything, me being bored, pernickety.
My footsteps echoed on the cold vinyl tiled floor. My breath bloomed in front of my eyes. The others joined me in the main bedroom.
Julie shrieked and grabbed hold of Robbie when she heard, we all heard, a dull thud on the celling overhead.
‘What was that?’ She gasped, her face ashen.
We could hear the sound of something being dragged across the attic. My first thoughts was of the stupid story I told the vicar, the one about Boris being kept in chains up there.
Then it stopped, the dragging noise, ended out in the hall, where we all now looked. I said aloud. ‘Relax, it’s just the wind.’
I could see it now, in my head, the attic room, full of thousands of dead flies, spooky, too spooky to ever use, we had decided, right after we moved in.
Julie shrieked again. We heard footsteps this time, and more noises, sounded like a cadaver being dragged across the floor.
‘Crap!’ I heard Carl cry out.
To get out of the room, meant crossing the hall directly under the loft hatch.
Julie looked at me for an explanation. I couldn’t speak. I had checked and double-checked the attic and there was nothing we’d left up there.
‘There’s someone in the attic.’ Julie hissed.
No crap Sherlock. I didn’t say it!
‘Squirrels.’ I suggested.
‘Yeah right with hobnail boots on!’ Lenny hissed.
As if hypnotized and of single intent, we shuffled towards the doorway out to the hall where, not an hour ago, I had closed and locked the loft hatch.
‘I told you this place was haunted.’ Julie cried clinging to Robbie. ‘The ghost is angry we are leaving here.’
Out in the hall it was my turn to gasp. The loft hatch was open and the ladder was down.
Shoulder to shoulder, Lenny and I stared up through the opening.
‘Crap.’ I shouted and grabbed hold of Lenny who tried to run. We saw pair of legs drop through the hole.
‘Daniel, you little crap. What were you doing up there. You scared the hell out of us.’ I said.
Seated on the edge of the opening and frowning, my son stared down at his enraged audience.
‘What?’ He said like it was us that had the problem. ‘Why you staring at me like that? You lot look like you’ve seen a ghost! I was just checking we’d not left anything behind.’
‘You frightened the life out of us.’ Julie snapped.
Our nerves were still on edge when a gust of wind caught the bedroom door that flew shut with a bang. I heard someone break wind. I had to screw up my nose.
‘I found a big box of my old toys up there.’ Luke said reaching back into the attic.
That explained the dragging noises. The atmosphere was tense. I needed to get everyone away from this bungalow, the moors, Oxhampton, and hell, get away from Devon.
‘Right,’ I snapped. ‘Daniel, close up the loft hatch, no one is to go up there… right? ‘There’ll be no more talk of ghosts. Lets get finished. We are leaving tonight. If we set off now, we can be in London by ten o clock.’
When I walked off the others stood their ground. I looked back and saw I had another bloody mutiny on my hands.’ What?’
‘We don’t want to go tonight. We want to go in the morning.’ Julie said, the Christian Fletcher of the assembly.
They were tired, I could see that, but then so was I. And I had had it with the cold and the damp, and the creepy noises. Plus the fact we had nothing more than a few slices of bread and a few stale biscuits to eat. There were no chairs to sit on, nor beds to lie on. ‘I’m serious,’ I said.’ We are not staying here.’
‘We are not leaving tonight.’ Julie said flatly.
I found a reasonable voice. ‘Ok, so do one of you want to tell me what’s going on?
‘It’s just…. I mean, what’s the hurry?’
Lenny nailed his colours to the mast of mutiny. He said. ‘I think we should all go down the pub, have a meal… a few bevvie’s and then we can set off in the morning? London will still be there tomorrow.’
Lenny’s suggestion elicited a chorus of support. I wasn’t to know that by giving in I had triggered off a course of events that was to turn my hair grey.
I groaned. I really couldn’t see the sense in having a team that wanted leadership by consent. This wasn’t a fekking democracy here. I was in charge…. or was supposed to be! Someone for God’s sake had to make the tough calls. I got a grip on my rising anger and paused to reflect on the cogency of their argument. Why not? We could leave in the morning.
Truthfully, I wasn’t happy at staying another night. Something in my gut was telling me it was a bad move. I decided I was being paranoid. I sighed. I was becoming an expert in deep, meaningful sighs.
‘Ok, ok,’ I said holding my palms up in defeat. ‘I’ll take you all to Smugglers Inn. You can all have a slap up meal, my treat.’
We had to offload the stuff we’d just packed into the Astra to fit us all in. I drove.
The route led along an ancient coach road that dissected the moors. The lights of the inn set back from the road punched a hole in the inky black sky.
Smugglers Inn had to the spookiest pub in the whole of Devon. Choosing to come here to eat, after the incident regarding the attic, was probably the fourth worst decision I had ever made.
The car park at the Smugglers Inn was empty. It was out of season, you’d expect it to be quiet. I wondered if the place was even open? Although through the windows I could see lights were on inside. I knew of the pub by reputation only. People would tell me; oh you must go there. It’s fascinating.
So, here we were.
With my hands in my pockets because of the cold, and my head down I led the way around to the front of the pub. The entrance was an eye-opener: a mock up of horse-drawn coach. You stepped through it and out the other side into the lounge bar. ’Stand and Deliver”. The sign over it said. We paused inside the carriage to admire the extraordinary pink, chesterfield style, leather workmanship. It must have cost a fortune to have custom made? I heard an American tourist had made an offer to buy the place for a million pounds, but the family who had had it for three generations, had turned it down.
Of particular fascination were the tables and chairs varnished to a glass-like finish made out of ancient tree roots dredged up from the nearby bogs and marshes.
I went over to the bar. The woman sat behind it watching TV got up off her chair and smiled at me. A quick look about me confirmed my first impression: we were the only people in there.
The others had gone off, excitedly searching through the maze of rooms, all fitted out with bog furniture and the most bizarre objects the owners could find. I got the impression the pub was a fascination for them and they would never finish adding to it.
With some difficulty I managed to get their attention and a drinks order.
Julie settled for glass of wine, Daniel wanted a Coke, Robbie, Lenny, Sean, and Carl, all chose different local ales. I settled for a bottle of spring water.
I grabbed a handful of menus, and then went in search of the others. I found them gathered in a quiet area, back of the pub, sitting on bogwood chairs at tables made out of ship’s wheels. All around us were artifacts of great antiquity, and curiosity.
Standing, I held up my glass and said. ‘Cheers everyone. Here’s to a successful house move.’
Robbie and Carl came with me when I went back to the woman behind the bar to order our food. I had to smile at their fascination with the huge elm tree that had been fashioned into a bar with hundreds of coins hammered into its ancient cracks.
When I rejoined the others now seated and chatting, I was attracted to a picture frame attached to the wall. On closer inspection I saw it contained a black and white photograph of a man and a newspaper cutting. In the diffused light of a tiffany wall lamp I saw the newspaper cutting had the date: 1861. The newspaper cutting referred to something that had happened in these parts more than a hundred years earlier.
‘Hey look at this guys.’ I said pointing.
Suddenly everyone was at my shoulder looking on.
‘Urgh! What is that?’ Robbie said sounding shocked. ‘Is that a man hanging from a tree?’
‘Looks like it.’ said Sean frowning.
‘Urgh. Gross.’ Julie said backing off.
Moving my finger slowly across the glass I read aloud:
Highwayman Executed at Dawn.
Notorious highwayman Ben Coulter hanged.
“Following a trial that lasted two days, Justice of the Peace Sir Henry-Woltson-Taylor passed judgment on the unrepentant villain Ben Coulter. Wearing the black-cap his honour sentenced the rogue to be hanged by the neck until dead. Coulter declined his right of appeal and was summarily executed by hanging from the tree behind The Smugglers Inn near Oxhampton.”
I heard a collective gasp.
‘Go on.’ Julie said, now apparently recovered from her earlier revulsion.
“Three constables were needed to keep a small crowd at bay when the horse bringing the condemned man, his hands secured behind him drew to a halt under a Yew tree. When asked if he wanted absolution Coulter could be heard to laugh out loud. Local hangman, Laurie du Pont, slipped the noose over Coulters head and then stepped back. Beadle Thomas Black then asked the highwayman if he had any last words. Coulter was heard to shout out. “I’ll be back to haunt every last one of ye.”
The Beadle slapped the horses’ rear and it took off leaving Ben Coulter to dance on the end of a rope. Coulter seemed in no particular hurry to die and it took a constable pulling on his ankles to end his agony. Later that day under the supervision of Beadle Thomas Black, in the dead of night, the highwayman’s corpse was cut down. Following the tradition reserved for murderers, the highwayman’s corpse was thrown into the Dartmoor bogs.
Two nights later, Smugglers Innkeeper, Mr Joseph Townsend, claimed he shad seen the troubled spirit of Coulter who was stalking the moors.”
June 1st 1761.
‘That’s the sort of gory story the Victorian’s loved to read about.’ I explained although I was no great authority on the matter. ‘Anyway enough talk,’ I said. The food had arrived.
We must have been starving because the demise of Ben Coulter did not make a dent in our appetite.
Few words were spoken while we tucked into out hot meals. Later, after a few more drinks, the conversation flowed.
Outside in the car park, the screech of an owl had the group running for the car.
Arriving back at Moore Cottage without the Aga to keep the chill off the place the bungalow was icy cold.
‘Jesus’. Lenny said rubbing his hands together. ‘It’s freezing in here.’
‘Yes Lenny, as I explained earlier, we have run out of heating oil.’
I thought what was the point in reminding them it wasn’t me who wanted to stay overnight.
Fortunately, using a torch, we soon recovered the cardboard box packed with the bedding stowed near the back of the Transit.
Julie and I divvied up the blankets and the duvets, and then individually, everyone went off to find somewhere to sleep.
I held no great hopes of getting a wink of sleep. I just hoped that during the night no one died from hypothermia.
At the first hint of dawn, with my body feeling as if it been thrown down a flight of stairs and then jumped upon, I crawled out from under my duvet and drew the curtains. Fierce sunlight, making me turn my head away poured through the glass. I stood in its light and welcomed the warmth, getting thawed. Groaning bodies rolled over, arms shielded their shuttered eyes.
Perhaps it was the beery evening. Everyone seemed subdued. We set to and loaded up the Astra.
It was Daniel who reminded me that we needed to find a space for the two guinea pigs we kept in the back garden in a wooden cage some four feet long, eighteen inches high and just as deep.
I cursed under my breath.
‘We’ll have to put them in a cardboard box and leave the cage behind. We simply don’t have room for it.’ I said anxious this wasn’t going to delay our departure further.
‘You can’t expect them to stay in a cardboard box for fours hours Dad! ’ Daniel protested. ‘They’ll die, or chew their way out. We have to take their cage? We’re going to need it when we get to the new house.’
I sighed. He was right of course, but with all four vehicles now packed to the gunnels, where was I going to put them?
The others followed me out to the garden. At our approach the guinea pigs began squeaking.
I scratched my chin. I had an idea. Marching over to the Escort van I gave the roof rack a good shake. I turned to Daniel and said.
‘This is what we do. We will shut them in the bedroom end of their run, and then tie the whole thing on the roof rack.’ I saw Daniel raise his eyebrows. ‘They’ll be fine.’ I said. ‘ Honest! They’ll be out the wind and safe as houses.’
Daniel shook his head. ‘I hope you’re right Dad.’
The others seemed too whacked to object. Perhaps they were too tired, or hung-over to even think straight.
Now grouped on the driveway, the assembly of tired house movers fidgeted in front of me when I called for their attention.
‘Let’s go over the plan again.’ I said trying to keep their attention. ‘I will head up the convoy.’ I ignored Lenny’s mock salute that had the others giggling like school kids.
I shook my head and pressed on. ‘Carl: Make sure you keep the Escort van close on my tail… I want that rust heap kept out of sight; I don’t want the cops seeing it. Lenny: You will travel with him, in the passenger seat, and Daniel, you will go in the back and look after Solomon. I turned to Sean who was leaning on his crutch. ‘Sean, it’s crucial you keep your lorry right up tight behind Carl. If that rust bucket gets seen by the cops they’re bound to pull him over.’
Sean nodded. I saw my wife shaking her head.
‘It’s you.’ She said
‘You… you…’ My wife exploded pointing a finger in my face. ‘Why do you always have to make such a big deal of things? What is all this convoy crap?’
‘I don’t have time for this Julie,’ I said. ‘I don’t even know what you are going on about.’
‘I am talking about you behaving as if you are some big bloody general. Why do you have turn everything you do into a bloody military operation?’
‘What the hell are you going on about?’ I shouted. ‘I don’t go around acting as If I’m a general… In fact I don’t recognise that person at all! I do not run things like a military operation…. Now, if you don’t mind we have a mission to complete.’
‘See,’ Julie said. ‘You’re doing it again. You said, “mission.” What’s that, if it’s not military thinking?’
I sighed and said. ‘Ok, ok, maybe you’re right… maybe I need to relax a little.’ I closed my eyes and waited for the red mist to evaporate. ‘I know… I know… I can get a bit anal when I’m under stress, but can we at least agree we need to have a plan… and if any of you,’ I waved my arms at the faces around me, ‘want to take over as leader, General, or whatever, I’ll be fine with that… I will step aside.’
As I suspected, not one of them took up the challenge. I took that as a sign the rebellion had run its course.
‘All done giving me a hard time, have we? ’ I snapped. I pointedly did no react to the look my wife gave me. We had already wasted too much time. But was I making an issue about that? No I was not. Instead I explained my plan of action.
‘Right you lot. Listen up… as I was saying before I was rudely interrupted, Julie, you are to take up the rear….’
Lenny raised his hand.
‘Yes Lenny,’ I said now fed up being interrupted. ‘You have a contribution to make?’
‘Did I just hear you say you wanted Julie to take it up the rear!’
While the others all fell about laughing, thinking it was funny… I didn’t. In fact I thought it was childish, but I never said as much. I waited for the laughter to abate. Then they all thought that funny, that and the look on my face. Maybe, we were all tired?’
I took a deep breath and shaking my head I walked away, headed out to the garden to get some fresh air. I needed to get away from the snorting and hooting at my expense. Then I got as mad as hell. I went back inside the house and turned on them. ‘Will you all just shut up?’ I yelled. ‘If we don’t stick together there’s going to be chaos. I just wanted to make sure that we all travel in a tight convoy. Is that too much to ask?’
‘Whooo.’ Julie chided.
I could feel a migraine coming on. I needed some air. I found my youngest on the drive and remembered Daniel hadn’t been at the briefing. He had his back to me. I sensed by the slope of his shoulders something was wrong. All my angere melted away. I went over to him and I put an arm around his shoulders. I saw he had written something in the ice on the windscreen of the van. When I read it I almost choked. I could hardly breathe past the painful lump in my throat He had written: “Please don’t take me away”.
Jesus! What kind of Dad have I become? That one simple sentence felt like a slap across my face. I must have missed something? I must have completely forgotten to ask him if moving up to London was what he wanted. It wasn’t enough, that I should think, oh, I don’t want him to become a farm labourer, I should have at least consulted him, talked it through, my intentions… my ambitions for his future. Now I felt bad. I gave him a hug. He didn’t look round at me. I was so ashamed I couldn’t even tell him I was sorry.
One-day. I hoped he’d understand that I was doing this for him, and Julie, and Robbie, and Louise, up in Basingstoke… for all of us.
I rubbed his back. He looked round and gave me a pained grin.
‘Its ok Dad, I know.’
I walked back inside the house. The others seemed to have gotten over their fit of the giggles. I was happy to allow the matter to rest.
‘Ahem,’ I cleared my throat. ‘Right you lot.’ I said. ‘Let’s get this show on the road’.
Robbie came over.
‘You ok Dad?’
‘Yeah. I’m good, thanks. And you?’
‘I’ll be alright once we get this convoy on road.’
‘You and me both.’ We both did this knuckle, touching thing that I never understood. It felt good though.
MD day: 10:06 AM.
After handing each of the other three drivers a copy of the new address. I explained the first stop would be the petrol station before we joined the M5. We would all fill up and I would go inside and pay. I climbed up in the Transit and then pulled out onto the lane. Watching through my wing mirror I saw Carl pull up behind me, then Sean eased out, and finally I saw Julie in the Astra. We were all lined up and ready to roll.
With an arm signal out my driver’s window I called out. ‘Convoy, Yo.’
It was a bit like the John Wayne film I had seen at some time, couldn’t remember the name of it, but I was now the Wagon Train boss, and I was about to lead my people into hostile country.
I had yet to discover how true that analogy was to become.
In the shadows of the trees, out of the sun, the freeze-up last night left a treacherous film of ice on the lane. Looking down the steep hill to the bend at the bottom and the wall of trees and shrubs that hid the steep slope down to the fast flowing river, I could imagine one of the vehicles was bound to end up in it. I wasn’t prepared to take that risk so I decided to take the longer road that led to Oxhampton.
On the outskirts of Oxhampton we picked up the A30 and headed east towards Exeter.
Twenty-three miles on, with the M5 in sight and the convoy intact, I started to relax a little. Even Julie was keeping up!
I was hoping that after filling up the fuel tanks at Exeter we could make it all the way to London without a single stop.
I led the convoy onto the forecourt of the service station at Exeter.
I had never had to use Smithy’s fuel credit card to pay for multiple-fill-ups, so I wasn’t at all sure I would be allowed to.
Thinking, even with all the times that I had filled up using his petrol account he still owed me, I got everyone to pull up at adjacent pumps. When I got the signal that everyone had filled their tanks I set off for the shop trying for the benefit of the CCTV cameras not to look guilty. Inside the shop I took my place at the end of a queue of six motorists, some loaded up with groceries. Try as I did I could not stop myself looking up into the unblinking eye of a CCTV camera set above the cashier desk. I could see myself, Julie and the others caught on camera having our mugshots splashed across TV screens up and down the country with the Crime Watch presenter saying, ‘ring the Crimestoppers number if you know of, or if you have you seen, any these people?’
I shuffled forward. I could feel cold sweat coursing down my back. I was now number two in the queue. I looked back at the queue behind me. There were four people waiting to pay.
I almost jumped when the attendant caught my attention.
‘Next.’ He snapped.
‘I er…yes… Pumps 2-4-5 and 6 please.’ I said as if it was an everyday occurrence and doing my best to sound casual.
The attendant’s eyes widened. ‘Four pumps!’
I noted the name on the badge he had pinned on his shirt.
‘Yeah, I got a big job on Stan.’ I said and hoped it sounded entirely feasible. I pushed the credit card across the counter. (This was the old sign on the receipt system: before the invention of chip and pin payments).
While Stan paid undue attention to the card I used my arm to wipe away the trickle of sweat that ran down my nose. The fixed smile on my face must have looked as if rigor mortis had set in.
My breathing came back on line when I saw him slide the card through the card-reader.
‘ That’ll be two hundred and twenty-two pounds, forty- mate.’ He said looking at me over the rim of his glasses.
“That’s fine Stan…. Lovely morning outside Stan…’ My voice sounded like I had been sucking on helium.
Stan, staring at his computer console seemed not to have heard me.
My fingers were drumming a staccato pattern on the counter. I had to get a grip on this crippling feeling of guilt or it was all over for my mission.
In my head I came out with the same argument that I used every time. Smithy owes you, and this was just getting what he owed you in a roundabout way.
Stan seemed to be taking forever processing the transaction. The longer it took the more I needed a wee. Hoping the others were ready to roll I stole a look out of the window. Crap! The others were running in and out of the petrol pumps playing British Bulldog! Jesus! Hadn’t I told them not to draw attention to themselves? How was this being inconspicuous? I looked back at Stan who was still studying his computer. I badly wanted to get Julie’s attention. Why wasn’t she stopping them messing about, acting like bloody school kids for chrissake! I visibly jumped when the attendant said.
‘Hey, I was speaking to you. You gone deaf!’
‘Huh?’ I sounded stupid.
‘I said, you need to sign that pal?’ Stan had pushed a slip of paper across the counter. I could have fallen over.
‘D’ya want any Mars bars?’ He said and pointed at a display of chocolate bars. ‘We have them on a special. Buy one get one half price.’
‘I er, n…no, not today thanks,’ I said stumbling over my words. ‘I gotta watch my weight.’
As in the past I scribbled an unintelligible name on the chit and pushed it back across the counter. I waited for my card to be returned.
I was hopping from one foot to the other waiting. I thought about turning around and walking out, pretending I had forgotten it.
That would have been ok because I wasn’t planning on using it after today. It’s not like I was likely to come back to Devon again, not in the foreseeable future that is… maybe never the way I viewed the place right now!
I was growing impatient watching Stan twiddling my card around in his fingers. He seemed engrossed in something on his computer screen. I could tell straightaway I was in trouble. I imagined he could hear my heart thumping in my chest.
I looked out the window and groaned when I saw Lenny and Robbie light up cigarettes on the forecourt. Julie was feeding the grass she’d pulled out of the grass verge to the guinea pigs. I just had to look away. I could kill them.
‘Excuse me mate.’ Stan said loud enough to get my attention.
I spun around to face Stan. ‘Oh, sorry,’ I said and took a peek back at the long line of people waiting to be served. ‘I was mile’s away.’
Stan’s face had darkened. I felt my stomach churn.
‘Computer says I can’t give you the card back mate.’
I looked at Stan who was holding Smithy’s credit card above, and behind his head.
‘It’s on my blacklist. I am instructed to keep hold of it.’
My thinking capacity seemed to have gone on vacation. I needed a moment to gather my thoughts… any thoughts. What did he mean? Was I to be detained? Was I going to be arrested? Could I just walk out of here having filled four vehicles with diesel costing a couple of hundred quid? Would I now be expected to find some other means of paying for it? Crap!
Losing the card wasn’t the issue here… that would probably be a good thing. I just wanted to walk out of here and drive off. If I achieved that, I was definitely going to cancel my annual subscription to the Atheist Society.
‘What!’ Acting as if this wasn’t the first time my boss had done this I said, ‘ don’t say my boss hasn’t paid his bill again. Jeez, what’s he like? Not to worry Stan, you keep hold of the card for now, and I will have a word with him soon as I get back to the office. No problem mate.‘
I managed a smile.
Turning smartly, I hurried out of the shop. Striding across the forecourt I made frantic waving motions at the others who could see from the scowl that I gave them I was not a happy bunny. I yelled at them.
‘Quick. Get in the bloody vehicles will you. Thanks a bunch for being inconspicuous. Do you even know what that means?’
I slammed the Transit door behind me, and afraid to look back in case I saw Stan racing after me I barked orders through my open window. ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’
Not a single one of them seemed to be in possession of the sense of urgency needed to be a successful fugitive. I shook my head at Julie who poked her tongue out at me.
Our little sideshow, them fooling around on the forecourt had attracted quite an audience. I gunned the engine and headed for the exit. Thinking I was the boss of a wagon train, I led my convoy onto the motorway. Feeling relieved we was on our way I gave the steering wheel a thump. ‘Yeah!’ I yelled out loud.
The M5 being quiet should have settled my nerves but a brooding sense of an impending crisis had me rattled. I decided to remedy this with two coconut wheels. Chewing on these I began to feel a bit better. I wondered if I was addicted?
When this was all over I was definitely going to book myself in for a check-up from the neck-up?
I was thinking I had better get my head straight. I had a convoy to head up. There was people that needed me to be stalwart, yeah, stalwart, that’s a good word. I adjusted my bottom in the seat, opened a fresh pack of liquorice allsorts, and popped two blue jelly spogs in my mouth. (Did you know they each had a name? Google it). I felt better.
Looking in my wing mirror I watched, Carl in the Ford Escort van slip in behind me. I was relieved to see Sean was close on his tail. Where was Julie? Typical! I couldn’t see my wife. One mile further on I was saying where the hell was Julie? Another mille: where the hell was Julie?
I eased back on the throttle and using my wing mirrors I focused on the road behind me. No good wishing and hoping, she wasn’t there! If she wasn’t not on the same road as the rest if us where the hell was she? The long, straight incline allowed me a view of the road as far back as the service station. Not only did this allow me to discount any suggestion she had been overtaken, it also ruled out any possibility that she had pulled over onto the hard shoulder.
Her whereabouts was a complete mystery. Now what do I do? What I did, was pop two biggies, (the four layer jobs) in my mouth and scrubbed at the two-day stubble on my chin.
I needed to get off the motorway. I saw a sign that said half a mile on there was a junction. I could see the motorway bridge. I planned to go off there and go across the bridge, and then find a spot to park the convoy. I needed to tell the others what I planned to do.
I checked my mirrors and signaled to go left. I saw the Escort van and the removal lorry had their indicators flashing. Thank God they were paying attention.
According to the map I had open on the passenger seat, the junction up ahead should be the A376. I was hoping somewhere along that stretch of road we would find a layby to pull into.
I had already decided I would drive back to the service station. I couldn’t think what else I could try. I had to find out what had happened to Julie.
We trundled over the motorway bridge. There was no layby! I found a straight bit of road and pulled over. Carl parked up behind me and got out the Escort. Sean, for some inexplicable reason decided to pass me and steer the heavy removal lorry onto the soft verge. I saw the warning sign, but I don’t know if he did. I felt exposed on this quiet back road. I was thinking if a cop car were to come along right now and find us sitting here, what are they going to do? Arrest the lot of us of course!
I looked about me. It was mercifully quiet. Not a single car had passed us.
I jumped out of my van and ran over to speak to Sean who had the good sense not to jump down out of his cab, not with his leg in a plaster cast.
With Sean staying put in the cab of his lorry, myself, Robbie, Carl and Daniel, gathered under Sean’s open window. None of us had any idea what might have happened to Julie. I said, ‘I am going back to try and find her.’ Sean said, ‘it’s best if the rest of us went on only I don’t want to get pulled over by the cops.’ Wondering about that I said, ‘why?’ He said, ‘I reckon the lorry is overweight.’ I had wondered that. I said, ‘ok, you and Carl head off, and I will go back and find Julie. I will catch up with you either on the road or at the new house.’
Understandably, Robbie and Daniel were worried. In these situations people tended to imagine the worst, and I was thinking the unthinkable too.
‘Your mum will be all right,’ I said trying to sound positive. ‘I reckon, her car’s broken down. Don’t worry, I’ll go back and find her.’
I turned and ran back to the Transit. Before I could drive off Daniel caught up with me.
‘I’ll come with you?’
How could I take him along? What if God forbid Julie had been hurt in an accident?
‘No, I said. ‘I need you to stay with Carl and Solomon, and keep and eye on them for me. I’ll be fine Daniel… and so is your mum.’
‘You sure you’ll be ok Dad?’ Robbie called over.
‘Yeah. I’m just a bit stressed.’ I called back. ‘I just want to get us all to the new house.’
I fired up the engine. ‘Right.’ I yelled from my open window. ‘Don’t hang about here, get moving.’
I swung the Transit around in a tight arc on the narrow road and with a final wave I sped off.
In my wing mirror I saw then passing round cigarettes. I shook my head.
I was now driving south on the M5 all the while on the lookout for Julie’s Astra. All I could think of was I needed to go back to the Exeter junction, back to where I last saw her… back to the service station. I toured the forecourt and she wasn’t there. So, where the hell was she? If it hadn’t been for the credit card business I would have gone inside the shop and asked Stan if he had seen her. I looked at the possibilities. There were only two exits off the petrol station: She could conceivably, have driven back up the A307, the way we came in, except I couldn’t see why she would do such a thing. The only other possibility was that she did leave by the M5 and I must have missed seeing her. That didn’t feel right. What other explanation could there be? And I don’t buy into the alien abduction theories.
After circling the forecourt three times, increasingly attracting the attention of other motorists, I began to allow the Alien abduction theory a little more credibility.
I was reminded of the famous words spoken by Sherlock Holmes: “When you have eliminated all which is possible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
That certainly narrowed it down. Julie had either, never exited the service station, or…. she has been abducted by aliens. The latter of course, would open up a whole vipers nest of complications.
Perplexed and in a state of shock, I could feel myself slipping into bereavement mode. A few liquorice allsorts would have helped but the bag was empty.
I had to face the truth of the matter Julie was not to be found at the service station. I had no idea where she was or how I could have missed her? I pulled into the bay alongside the air and vacuum machines and kept the engine running. I began thumping my forehead with the flat of my hand in the hope I might dislodge some nugget of information that might help. The rational part of my brain began sweeping aside the more illogical notions, and it focused on what I actually knew.
Ok. I couldn’t remain where I was, I had to move, but go where? I leaned my head on the steering wheel and pressed both palms against the sides of my head hoping to constrain a sudden compulsion to leap from the van and scream at the sky. Instead I chose to vent my frustration on my missing wife.
‘Bloody hell Julie! All you had to do was follow the friggin wagon train… how difficult was that?’
That helped calm me little. I closed my eyes and reviewed the “law of reciprocity” that states: “When faced with competing and equally valid arguments one should eat no fewer than two liquorice allsorts.”
Except I had none, or, I thought I had none, until I found a triple brown and white sandwich, and a yellow coconut wheel in the glove box that had fallen out of the packet? Those did the trick. Sherlock could go do one. I worked out Julie must have slipped past us unnoticed at the point at which our convoy had left the motorway… no other explanation could possibly explain her disappearance.
Ipso-facto, Julie was well on her way to London.
Time to move. I shoved the Transit into first and sped off.
I hit the M5 at speed thinking Julie doesn’t drive fast it wont be long before I overtake her. Before that I imagined I would have overtaken Sean and Carl in their slow moving convoy.
I checked my watch. Four minutes to ten. Sean and Carl should have crossed the Somerset border by now, and were probably halfway across Dorset.
Having in my mind concluded the matter of Julie’s disappearance I applied a little more concentration to my driving. Sensibly, the other vehicles on my side of the motorway were all behaving in a civilized manner. All in all, the road felt unnaturally serene. A glance in my wing mirror explained why. I saw blue-flashing lights. I looked down at the speedometer, I was doing seventy-five. I eased back on the throttle and brought the speed down to a little under seventy and then saw the unmarked cop car pull into my lane. Crap!
My breathing now came in truncated snatches. I felt my muscles tense up. I licked my dry lips. Being a man of lapsed religious conviction I had little faith in my mumbled invocations. Now just four car lengths behind me I could see the two grim-faced uniformed males inside it.
I felt in my gut they were going to pull me over. That was when my brain divided into two opposing camps. I hated it when this happened. It meant I couldn’t get anything constructive done all the while these factions competed to take control over my next course of action. The logical part of my brain, that held most sway, most times, argued the case that trusting my gut was essentially the same as reading tea leaves.” Countering this, the illogical part of my brain was telling me. “You don’t know that.”
“The cops are not after you Art… The analytical side of my brain insisted. “Making decisions based on something you feel in your gut is essentially the same as the Romans who used to decided on whether or not to go to war based on the configuration of the entrails of a sacrificed chicken! Relax. You’ve nothing to worry about,” the voice in my head persisted.
“Don’t forget the small matter of the credit card!” Another voice piped up. “Maybe the guy in the petrol station had called the cops after all! And, maybe, this Transit has been flagged up as stolen!” Crap!
I was now getting pissed off listening to these two irascible cynics that occupied my head. I needed more liquorice allsorts. Holding out little hope I rummaged around in the glove box and without taking my eyes off the road or the approaching blue flashing lights I poked around in the corners. My heart sank. I groped deeper. My thumb and finger came out with one of those little liquorice figures, black, this was. They only ever put the one in a bag. You’ve seen them; they look a bit like a stubby person, or a teddy bear. I could never decide which, whatever, it got its head bitten off.
I sighed. What was wrong with reading tea leaves? I liked the reassurance they gave me. I checked the wing mirror. The blue lights were much closer now. I was getting panicky and reminded of the time I reached the front of the queue at the “Ride of death” in Chessington Zoo. I was never one for the really big, scary rides. I found the Teacup and saucer ride scary enough.
I needed to get a grip. I decided the approaching police car was not the least bit interested in me. I imagined these stalwart custodians of British justice had better things to attend to. Right now I had more important matters I needed to be thinking about: matters such as finding my wife, and hooking up with the rest of my convoy.
With a deepening gloom I watched the blue lights close in. Had they slowed? If the cops had wanted me to stop, surely the protocol in these matters was: The cop car would pull up close to my bumper and then do the wheeey-wheeey thing, and then the flashing light thing, and then, non-verbally, make it clear to me that I should pull over. Either way, I just wish they’d drive past me and sod off, go chase some bad guys.
With the cop car in the centre lane and now parallel with my window I glanced to my right and found myself looking at a pair of piggy eyes set in a piggy face. With a waving, pointing motion of his piggy hand he made clear that I was expected to pull over onto the hard shoulder. I almost choked on Bertie Bassett.
I felt my chest tighten up. I flicked on my hazards, eased back on the throttle, and braking all the while, I trailed the unmarked cop car into the emergency stop lane.
After coming to a halt, I killed the engine, and watched the unmarked Volvo in front of me do likewise. At this point I was almost hyperventilating.
It felt like an age before I saw both doors of the Volvo open. I wondered why the delay? What? Were they checking the number plate? I knew it… they had checked with the DVLA and had been told the Transit was on their wanted list. The cop driver, wearing mirror sunglasses, was the first to climb out of the Volvo. I had always held the opinion that men who wore mirror sunglasses must have small willies, and men disadvantaged in that department, in my experience, are always very bad news. I watched as he straightened up and pulled on his cap. I was immediately struck by his resemblance to Mr Mackay, the prison warder in Porridge. From his gait I imagined he was ex military. My tongue poked around in a hole in a back molar trying to dislodge a piece of Bertie Bassett. I noted the three stripes on the sleeves of his uniform. This was a sergeant.
‘Good morning Sir,’ he said bending at the waist having a good sniff inside the van through my open drivers window, no doubt hoping to smell alcohol, or weed. ‘I am Sergeant Sylvester, and my colleague over there,’ he pointed back to his car, ‘is PC Butty. We would like a word with you.’
The piggy-eyed cop appeared to be having trouble unhooking his seat belt. PC Butty, such a ridiculous name, might have been an entirely different species of hominid. Butty was vertically disadvantaged to the point where I doubted he was tall enough for his head to actually reach the hat he had by this time squashed down on his head.
PC Butty grabbed hold of his pants and pulled them up. I imagine the amount of armoury attached to his belt must weigh them down. In his right hand he had a Taser. He lifted the loudhailer held in his left hand to his mouth.
I watched PC Butty adopt a spread-legged stance at the side of the cop car.
‘STEP OUT OF YOUR VEHICLE… PUT YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEAD, AND DROP TO YOUR KNEES.’
PC Sylvester: “Rambo” I decided, ducked his head reflexively and spun around to face his junior partner.
‘Butter, for chrissake put that bloody thing away. This isn’t Hawaii 5-O.’
‘I am issuing the suspect with a warning Sarge.’ Butty said aiming the Taser in my general direction.
PC Butter was the son of Commander Butty, who happened to be head of Somerset and Avon Police. It was the Chief himself that insisted that Sergeant Sylvester take him under his wing, show him the ropes, keep him from doing anything stupid, like that was even possible!
‘But I’d rather you didn’t do that Butty,’ the long-suffering sergeant said through gritted teeth. It had been a long day.
Had it not been for the thought he would have to explain to a disciplinary panel how it came about a Police loudhailer was irreparably damaged in a collision with the police chief’s son’s head, Sergeant Sylvester might have done something rash. An action that could well have a negative effect on his police pension due to come out in two years.
‘Sir!’ Butty said smartly giving his sergeant a salute. ‘Do I have your permission to batter him, if he tries to do a runner?’
Speaking as if he were reading a bedtime story to a four-year old, Rambo said.
‘First of all Butty, Mr Blakely, here, is not a suspect and, he is being very good and quiet, and furthermore he has no intention of escaping… Tell him Mr Blakely?’
How the hell did Rambo know my name? For a few moments I couldn’t say anything. The van was still registered in Smithy’s name so it could have been anyone driving a company van!
‘I can assure you, Constable Butty, I have absolutely no intention of doing a runner.’
‘I’m sorry to trouble you sir.’ Rambo sounded genuinely embarrassed. ‘PC Butty is very keen, and he is new on the job.’
I was hardly able to take my eyes off Butty with his Taser whom I had now decided was as mad as a box of frogs. I gave the sergeant look of empathic understanding.
Adopting a star-jump stance Butty had now taken it upon himself to stand right in front of my van.
Rambo watched this display and then said. ‘Butty, what the hell are you doing?’
‘I am preventing the suspect from fleeing a crime scene Sarge.’
I forced my hands to relax my dead-mans grip on the steering wheel. PC Butty was now checking the road tax disc.
‘Where were we Mr Blakely?’ Rambo said indicating with his head how embarrassed he was.
I felt sorry for the man, having that jerk tailing him around.
‘‘You pulled me over.’ I explained. ‘Do I have a brake light out? I’m not a criminal honestly… and I really am going to return the van to the Inland Revenue …the very minute I get to London…. I…I…’
‘Have you been drinking sir?’ Rambo said.
I couldn’t make out if he was being serious, his eyes hidden behind them stupid mirror sunglasses.
‘Only tea – coffee.’ I said ‘Nothing stronger. I’m teetotal.’
‘Bah!’ Butty interjected. ‘Do you really think I’m that stupid buddy?
I was tempted to say yes!
‘I’m sorry,’ I said addressing Rambo. ‘Is he for real? I mean, can he not go sit in the car and play with something?’
‘He’s the guvnor’s son,’ Rambo said. ‘What can I say?’
‘Butty! Go check the tyres.’ Sergeant Sylvester snapped.
I was getting impatient, worrying about the convoy and how much time we’d lost. I really didn’t need these two pantomime characters holding me up for reasons that had yet to be explained.
The next sentence that came out of Rambo’s mouth made no sense at all.
‘Step out of your vehicle please sir, and leave the keys in the ignition, that’s a good man.’
Butty who was now slapping his collapsible truncheon on the palm of his hand had me worried. I got out of my van and stood staring at my own reflection in Rambo’s sunglasses.
‘Now sir,’ Rambo said.
When he took out his notebook and flipped it open he had my undivided attention.
‘You said something about this van wasn’t yours, that it belonged to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs?’
Aw crap! These two dickheads hadn’t stopped to me to question me about the van after all. There were times when I wished I would just keep my big mouth shut.
‘Oh… this van ‘ I said stalling for time whilst trying to think of a reason why I should be driving around in a van that was full of furniture that belonged to HMRC. I said, ‘‘this van is on loan from them.’ Brilliant! I had an idea. I may yet be able to talk my way out of the hole I just dug myself into. ‘Let me explain Sergeant Sylvester… sir. HMRC and I have a financial arrangement over unpaid wages due to me.’
“A… Fin.ancial…. arrange…ment” Rambo said aloud as he wrote it his notebook.’ Go on.’ Sergeant Rambo glanced up and licked the tip of his biro held in readiness above his pad.
‘Ok,’ I said, thinking on my feet, ‘I should explain. The Inland Revenue has said I can hang on to the van until such time as my case has been heard and a settlement agreed. (At this point I should have shut up, instead I started rambling on like a courtroom barrister defending a murder suspect.) ‘Under the Act of jurisprudence, pertaining to plumbers versus bosses, 1842, as a lawful creditor to the estate of the insolvent JA Smith Plumbing Enterprises, I am lawfully permitted to take ownership of the said vehicle until the debtor duly pays what he owes me.’
I must have been tired. I can’t think why I said all that but it worked.
I saw Rambo push back his cap and scratch his head. It seemed my performance had rendered the pair of them dumbstruck. Perhaps my predilection for TV court dramas was of greater use than Julie would have acknowledged. I found myself rising to the occasion. Pacing to and fro with my hands clasped behind my back I got into my stride.
‘Whilst this dispute remains unsettled subject to habeas corpus, ipso fact and furthermore, in abeyance of section seven, paragraph B of the “Goods and Chattels Act of 1882 I am within my rights to keep hold of this van until the European High Court In Strasbourg sits on my case.’ I had run out of superlatives… and Latin.
Rambo removed his sunglasses to get a better look at me.
‘Can he do that?’ The short fat copper said.
I imagined his arms must have been aching by now; holding that star jump pose in front of my van, and tugging up his trousers?
‘I dunno,’ Rambo said.’ Anyway that’s of no interest to us.’ Turning back to me now he said, ‘Mr Blakely I have no idea what the hell you are talking about. We stopped you to tell you that your wife has been involved in a fatal…. ‘
I heard the word “Fatal” and promptly fell against the side of the van.
‘Mr Blakeley! Are you alright?’ Said Sergeant Sylvester.
‘Noooo!’ I cried. ‘Please… don’t say my wife is dead.’
‘What! No.’ Rambo said. ‘If you’d let me finish: I was about to say, as a result of a fatal collision between your wife’s windscreen and an unrecovered missile, most likely a stone, your wife and her car have been taken, under police escort, to the police station in Clyst St George.
For some time, I couldn’t say how long, probably about ten seconds, all I could do was stare at the cop. Finally, it made perfect sense. Wow! Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t have worked this one out. Who’d have thought it, Julie being taken away by the cops? That was about as likely as my alien abduction theory.
‘Wha… wh…is she hurt?’ I stammered, ‘and where the hell is Clyst… whatever it was you just said?’
‘St George.’ Rambo said. ‘Your wife is in the nick at Clyst St George. I have been told your wife suffered no injuries. She asked my colleagues who rescued her to track you down and get you to go to her because she has no means of paying for a replacement windscreen.’
I closed my eyes and groaned. Now, it all made perfect sense. A broken windscreen! The thought never entered my head As for me paying for a new one…they had to be joking!
I then remembered I still had the cheque book, the one that I faithfully swore to my bank I would return. It was in the glove compartment. I’d pay with a cheque. It’d bounce of course, but then what they going to do, throw me in debtors prison, take away my house, send round the bailiffs, take out my spleen and auction it off? What’s one more offence when I was running about the southern counties acting like bank robber Clyde Chestnut Barrow, (Bonnie and Clyde), on the lam, with law officers chasing me across state lines in a hot vehicle?
By this time I was having difficulty in defining with any exactitude just where the edges of reality lay. (Yeah. I know what you’re thinking…. I am probably overdue for a review of my meds.)
The moment passed. I got my breathing under control. Panic over. In a couple of hours I would have Julie would back on the road and… there was still a chance that we could reach London by nightfall.
‘Thank goodness,’ I said. ‘Thank you so much. Am I free to go now?’
Rambo cast his colleague a look. Butty shrugged. What’d he know?
The sergeant stepped away from my van and with a sweep of his hand said.
‘You may go on your way Mr Blakely.’
Star-jump Butty gave me a scowl and then hauling up his pants he ran to catch up with his boss who was about to climb back into the unmarked cop car parked in front of me on the hard shoulder. (Does anyone know how it got to be called a “Hard Shoulder?”? Yeah, it’s hard, you’d expect it to be, the surface I mean, but it’s hardly a shoulder!)
I got back in the van and groaned. Rambo was coming back. What now? I leaned my head out through the open drivers window.
‘Oh. Just a second, Mr Blakely.’ Rambo said.
My heart stalled.
‘Have a nice day now.’
I stared at him and then said. ‘You too.’ Was that it? He came all the way back just to tell me have a nice day? Idiot. I gave him a salute and then fired up the engine.
I didn’t move off straight away. I wanted them to go ahead of me. I didn’t fancy having them two numbchucks on my tail, watching them through my wing mirror. I could just imagine what that would do to my fractious nerves. I was going to sit tight, keep my nerve and wait until they pulled away and had gone out of sight.
I was drumming my fingers on the steering wheel. Through the murky windscreen I could make out the heads and shoulders of two coppers sitting in their car twenty feet in front of the van. They weren’t moving off. I sensed rather than knew that they were now engaged in a conversation on the police radio. Jeez, I wished they’d bugger off go chase a few proper criminals. I was in a rush to go find Julie, except first, I had to find Clyst ST George!
All wasn’t lost. My plan wasn’t quite in tatters. I just needed to make a few adjustments to the timing. First, I would get Julie back on the road and then shoot off and try and catch up with Carl and Sean who by that time should be in Surrey, not too far from London.
It was a great relief to me to think at least our belongings, everything we had in the world, were safe and sound and on the way to our new home.
Point of fact, Sean and Carl hadn’t driven off. They were in exactly the same spot Art had left them over an hour ago. The removal lorry when it went to pull away got stuck in the soft verge. Sean’s frantic revving of the engine achieved nothing more than to dig the wheels in even deeper.
Carl, Robbie and Daniel pushing at the back of the truck, getting covered in mud couldn’t shift it.
On the self same road, five hours into an eight-hour shift, Sergeant Mike Trowers and female PC Lesley Alsop, were bored. The only thing they’ had to do all morning was to take a witness statement from the driver of a Nissan Micra who had filed a complaint after he was cut up on the M5 by what he claimed to be: “A hostile convoy of vehicles, hell-bent on overtaking me. The buggers almost saw me and my wife Edith in the ditch.”
‘And this convoy was: a removal lorry – a very badly rusted white Ford Escort van and a White Transit van?’
Trowers had put this down in his notebook and then assured the old couple he would try and find the culprits and then give them a good ticking off. .
‘Hey looks what’s up ahead sarge’ Lesley Alsop said and pointed through the windscreen.
Four males were trying to push a removal lorry out of a trench. Its back wheels spewing out wet mud was splattering the men doing the pushing.
‘Bloody hell! ‘ Trowers had a thing about lorry drivers that ignored the Soft Verge warning signs. He and Alsop would now have to sit around for hours and wait for a tow truck to arrive and pull it out.
‘Jesus, don’t these drivers ever read the bloody signs,’ Trowers said pulling over behind them, his blue lights flashing. ‘I bet he’s overloaded.’
PC Trowers had his wife to think of… and his police pension just eighteen months off. Abigail, that’s his wife, was still in shock after her husband had got stabbed, last year by a wife beater. She didn’t want to him to go back to work, she told him, and ‘you should do what all them other buggers do, milk your sick leave and then go for early retirement.’ He told her, ‘Abi, I can’t do that. It’s not me you know.’ Abi, said, ‘well I don’t want you going back to work, and getting killed.’ He said, ‘listen, I will avoid all the Saturday night pub fracas, steer clear of the drunks and the wife-beaters, and leave all that stuff to the young Turks on the job, ok?’ Finally he got her to calm down when he said he would move over to traffic division, which is where he was now. Working Traffic, pulling over motorists, he’d seen a few nasty things on the road but mostly it was boring as hell. As long as he got through each shift without getting hurt Abigail was happy. She had big plans for them both. They were selling up and emigrating to Montreal, Canada where her sister and her mother now lived. All he wanted now was to cruise through to the day he had his retirement do, and then go home and never have to wear a uniform again.
‘Look at the state of those jokers,’ said Trowers pointing to the men covered in mud. ‘I hope I don’t have to arrest them and take them in my car, I’d have to clean it out.’
When Sean, leaning his head out the drivers window saw the cop car pull up he took his foot off the accelerator and switched off the engine.
Behind the lorry, Lenny, Daniel, Robbie and Carl, caked in mud, hadn’t noticed the arrival of a cop car. They wondered why Sean had turned the engine off.
Robbie was the first to straighten up, having spotted the two cops getting out their car. ‘Cops!’ he said and prodded Daniel who was still pushing a lorry that had its handbrake on.
Wiping their muddy hands on their clothes the lorry pushers went around the truck and gathered at Sean’s window.
Sean watched the male and the female copper pull on their caps.
‘Let me do the talking.’ Said Sean out side of his mouth.
‘Hello chaps,’ said Sergeant Trowers. ‘Got ourselves in a spot of bother have we?’
‘Not really,’ Sean answered genially. ‘We were just about to drive off, we stopped for a break… didn’t we?’
Following Sean’s instructions the others nodded, but said nothing. Carl faked a yawn, Daniel made out he needed to stretch his arms and Lenny lit a cigarette.
As if he was taking this rubbish story in, Trowers nodded. “Really! Just taking a break were you? Just stretching your legs were you? Have you any idea what you look like?’
The four looked at each other and then fell about laughing.
‘Right. Safety-First procedures. For a start,’ Trowers said walking to an open stretch of ground off the road, ‘Let’s be having you all over here. I don’t want any of you getting hit by a car.’
Sergeant Trowers saw the lorry driver hadn’t got out of his cab. ‘Oi, you, get down out of the cab. I want you over here with the others.’
Trowers shook his head when the lorry driver threw out a crutch and then hopped out with his leg in plaster. He waited for him to hobble over.
With them all now safely assembled on the grass verge Trowers took out his notebook.
‘Right. Listen to me you lot, and don’t give me any crap, that lorry,’ Trowers pointed. ‘I think is way over its legal weight limit, which is why I am calling a tow truck and having it taken to a public weigh bridge.’ Turning to PC Alsop he said, ‘Lesley get on the radio and have central send a tow truck out ASAP.’
Resuming his interrogation of the muddied men Trowers said. ‘Now, which of you owns this vehicle?’
Sean raised his hand.
‘And you have been driving this vehicle with a broken leg!’
Sean said. ‘Yeah. I can drive fine. Is there a law saying someone with a broken leg can’t drive?’ The remark wasn’t intended to provoke the copper and Trowers didn’t take it that way.
‘Truthfully, I don’t know, but quite possibly, I could do you for not having the vehicle under proper control.’
‘Ah, said Sean, ‘but that would be difficult to prove.’
Trowers thought about that. The driver might have a point. ‘That’s neither here nor there. I am more concerned about the fact this lorry is sitting low on its axles and I rather suspect when I get you to open the back doors we shall find out why.’
The female cop came back. ‘Dispatch reckons the tow truck could be up to an hour.’
‘Terrific,’ said Trowers. He pointed at the rusted Ford Escort van and said, ‘Alsop, find out which of these characters was driving that heap of rust and take them over to it and check it over.’
Carl raised his hand. ‘Sir, I was driving it. I only got it this morning. It was registered to my Uncle Art, who said I could have it and he signed it over to me.’
‘Well Carl Blakely, I want you to go with Officer Alsop over to your van. The officer is going to see how many traffic offences you might have made. The rest of you don’t move. I want names, and I want addresses, and I want no trouble… we clear on that?’ He looked straight at Sean. ‘Lets start with you Captain Hook?’
‘Sir…’ Daniel interrupted with a raised finger. ‘I believe Captain Hook had lost his hand! Did you mean, Captain Ahab in Moby Dick? He lost a leg?’
‘I’m watching you sonny.’ Said Trowers pointing his pen in Daniel’s face. ‘Don’t get smart with me.’
Lesley went off with the van driver. She sensed he was hiding something the way he was in no particular hurry. The first thing she did was peer through the murky windows in the back doors.
Trowers was interrupted by a shout from his female partner.
‘Hey Sarge,’ she called out, ‘There’s a vicious looking dog in the back of this van. I am not opening the door. You had you better come and deal with this.’
He turned to look over at Alsop who was now inspecting the wood and wire cage tied to the roof rack.
‘And I can hear animals moving about in this cage on the roof rack.’
Trowers looked round at the faces doing their best to look angelic.
‘That will be Solomon, our dog’. Daniel said. ‘He’s very friendly. He wont bite, and neither will the two Guinea pigs who are in the cage.’
Looking across to his colleague, Trowers yelled back. ‘Don’t worry about that, just check the vehicle for defects, check his license, and if hasn’t got it with him, hand him out a producer.’
‘What’s a producer?’ Carl asked the female cop.
By way of an explanation Lesley handed the van driver the slip of paper she had been writing on.
‘You have one week to produce your vehicle documents. You can do this at any police station. You must produce your driving license, a current MOT certificate, and your Insurance certificate. Alsop looked directly at Carl. ‘Is that going to be a problem?’
‘Well, no. I don’t think so, only I just took it on this morning, off my uncle Art.’
‘And is this Uncle Art, one of those characters standing over there?’ Lesley pointed to the other males talking with Sergeant Trowers.
‘Er, no,’ Carl said. ‘Uncle Art said that his wife had gone missing so he had to run off.’
‘When you say missing, Lesley said, thinking murder. ‘What do you mean by missing?’
‘All I know is she disappeared. Art said he thought she was taken by aliens.’
‘Did he indeed?’ Lesley had always imagined, what with her being a female, she had better intuitive powers than her male counterparts. She wasn’t always right, but she thought she did pretty good at sniffing out crime. The guys in the nick had a name for her: “Spaniel.” Lesley wasn’t to know she earned this moniker because of how she wore her hair, messy like.
Carl said. ‘You wont be able to talk to him because he had to rush off to look for her. He is driving a Transit van. But I don’t think that belongs to him either.’
‘Wait here.’ Alsop snapped and walked away.
Alsop caught her sergeant’s attention and with a sideways tilt of her head indicated she wanted to take him aside for a quiet word.
‘Sarge, there may be a missing female! This could be a murder investigation!’
Trowers stiffened and looked back at the huddle of males twenty feet away. ‘What makes you say that Alsop?’
‘The one over there,’ Alsop pointed to Carl. ‘He said the guy who was running this show, his uncle Art. Apparently, his wife has gone missing.’
Trowers felt the scar on his chest twinge. A wife beater!
Mike Trowers looked hard at his partner who had led him down a few of these garden paths before. He also knew she had the box entire box set of Starsky and Hutch. He thought of his wife, Abigail and their retirement plans. He groaned. If Alsop was right, and a woman had been murdered, and he didn’t act on her suspicions, he might just kiss goodbye to his pension.
With the engine running I’d been sitting in the Transit van seven minutes impatiently waiting for the cops to bugger off. Julie would be going nuts and wondering where I was …like it was my fault!
I had almost run out of patience with the two coppers still sitting in their car and chatting. I was thinking just drive off; does it really matter if they tail you? Yes it did. My nerves were already frayed. I opened the glove box and felt around inside. Right now just one, single, sticky, fluff-covered liquorice allsort would help. Nothing. At the sound of car doors getting slammed I looked up and saw Rambo and Butty heading over. I was getting good at groaning. Bloody hell! What now?
Rambo came over to my window. Butty, hauling up his pants, was struggling to catch up. I sensed trouble. I wound down my window.
‘Step out of your vehicle please, Mr Blakely.‘ Said Rambo.
He sounded a little officious. I got out smartly.
‘Mr Blakely, whilst I fully appreciate your wife’s predicament may be of paramount importance to you. I am in receipt of fresh information that requires me to make further enquiries into the possibility that you…Mr Blakeley, are in fact the head of a felonious syndicate operating between London and the West Country.’
I was actually too astonished to speak.
“Before you say anything I would like to run a few names by you…Do you, Mr Blakely, know any of these individuals: Mr Sean Bell… Mr Lawrence Blakely… Mr Robbie Blakely… Mr Daniel Blakely… and a Mr Carl Blakely?’
What the hell! How had he got hold of those names?
‘Yes,’ I said frowning. ‘Four of those are relatives. Sean Bell is a close friend. As I have already explained, we are trying to move house…to London. We are not felons and we are not a syndicate’. All of a sudden I felt I could do with a lie down. ‘Officer would you mind telling me what this is all about? How is it you have the names of those people? Have they broken the law?’
‘The law!’ Rambo scoffed, sounding, as if I was the one that ought to know!
‘Your little mafia family may have broken umpteen laws Mr Blakely!’
I was now beginning to think the only way he could have got hold of those names was because my convoy had been pulled over. Although the thought of that depressed me, it didn’t surprise me. If they had been captured, that was really bad news. I took a deep breath and modulated my tone. ‘I need to ask, officer, in what capacity do you know of these people?’
Rambo licked his forefinger and flicked through his notes. He cleared his throat.
‘Ahem: A Mr Sean Bell has been arrested on suspicion of driving an overladen vehicle, and failing to observe the law in relation to being in proper and full control of a motor vehicle…. Rambo flicked over a page and continued. ‘A Mr Carl Blakely, has been detained at the roadside, and is being questioned regarding a number of motoring offences connected to a Ford Escort van.’ Rambo looked back at me. ‘Would it help if I were to read these out to you individually…?’
‘No… no… no thank you, Sergeant, I shouldn’t bother’’ I really didn’t want to hear a long list of defects on the very vehicle that I never wanted to bring along in the first place!
It was perfectly clear the convoy had been stopped, but had it been dispersed? In addition and more importantly where the hell was everyone?
I closed my eyes and felt my shoulders sag. When I reopened them Butty had resumed his blockade of my exit. I wondered did his arms ever get tired?
‘You should know, Mr Blakely, there are no less than four separate police forces working on your case.’
My case! My case! What the hell was he talking about? ‘What case? There is no case, there’s just me and my family trying to get to London…that’s all.’ I had to wipe my sleeve across my eyes.
‘There’s really no need to get upset Mr Blakely, we’re just trying to help.’
“Help!’ I exploded. ‘How the hell is detaining my family, in however many parts of this bloody county, helping me?’ I now wept openly.
With his handcuffs in one hand and a spray can of Mace in the other, Butty made a move towards me. ‘You want me to cuff him Sarge?’
‘This is a serious business Mr Blakely.’ Rambo said and held up a restraining hand to his partner.
I felt as if I were being dragged to the edge of insanity. Any minute now, I was going to wake and find this was all a bad dream. I slapped my face. It hurt. No. I wasn’t dreaming. This crap was actually happening. I felt nauseous. My lips had gone dry. I could feel my hands shaking.
‘Are you all right Mr Blakely? You’ve gone white.’
I noticed Rambo had removed his sunglasses and was staring in my face.
I must have looked deranged because Rambo took two steps back.
Am I all right? I thought. I’d no idea? I was upright. That was something.
‘I think you should calm down Mr Blakely, we are trying to help you here.’ Rambo said.
It felt as if my world had imploded, as if I were being sucked into a Black Hole, one that I would never come out of, but one that would give me some peace and quiet.
My mind dragged me back. I started to relive all the upheavals and the humiliation we as a family had had to endure. I had been a successful businessman. Now I am a man on the run without a penny to my name. I saw myself in a wicker handcart, chained and bound, being pelted with rotten fruit and abused by lines of my creditors demanding recompense. And all I ever wanted to do was to protect my family. Now, I am little more than a miscreant choking on the dust of my barren life and being led to the place of ultimate shame. Noooo. Not Primark’s!
I was crying openly now, heaving to get my breath and licking snot off my upper lip. Through a curtain of tears I saw Rambo bent over, his hands on his knees examining me. I could see his jaw moving up and down, in and out. His words, a muddy slur, I couldn’t make out. I could sense rather than feel my own hands batting the side of my head. Other hands took hold of my shoulders and shook me. ‘Mr Blakely… Mr Blakely! Can you hear me?’
I blinked twice and refocused. Rambo had hold of me.
‘Will you please stop shaking me.’ I said levelly.
Unaided I managed to get to my feet. Using my sleeve I wiped the tears from my eyes. Speaking in a flat monosyllabic manner I tested my voice.
‘I…I… I have to go find Julie, she’s pregnant you know… Five months gone.’
I frowned at the ease with which such an invention could so easily trip off my tongue.
‘Oh.’ Said Rambo taken aback by this latest revelation. ‘With child is she… your wife? Well in that case, if you feel well enough Mr Blakely, you should be on your way and I shan’t detain you any longer.’
I leaned back against the door of the Transit. I needed to catch my breath and coordinate my faculties. Did Rambo just say I could go?
‘You have a nice day.’ Rambo said with a sweep of his hand stepping smartly aside.
I acknowledged the salute he gave me and then, not quite able to believe that I was finally rid of these two bumbling idiots I climbed back in the Transit and then looked about for PC Butty who seemed to have abandoned his blockade of my van.
Then I saw him. Keeping his back turned, he was peeing in the hedge. He glanced back over his shoulder and smiled awkwardly before bending at the knees to zip up his fly. Hauling up his pants he hurried to catch up with his partner getting back in the unmarked cop car.
I gunned the engine and sat there waiting for them to drive off. This felt like déjà vu.
I could see their heads bobbing about inside their car. A cold and sinister voice in my head was telling me I might not have seen the last of those two bellends. I was right!
‘Oh hell! What now?’ I muttered when I saw the two of them climb back out of their patrol car and head straight for me.
Butty was staring at me through my windscreen. His face had a look of grim determination when he jumped into his starfish pose in front of the van.
I sighed and wound down my window. ‘Yes Sergeant?’ I said wearily.
Rambo licked his thumb and flicked to a page in his notebook.
Suspicious now that this had to be one of them Gotcher stunts that I’d seen on the telly, I had a good look at their uniforms to see if they might have come out of a fancy dress shop. I really couldn’t tell. I looked about me, in the bushes, searching for hidden cameras. For a moment there, to test my theory I considered knocking off Rambo’s hat … Just as well I didn’t.
‘I have some good news for you Mr Blakely,‘ Rambo said and smiled. ‘I have just had a call on my radio to say that Sean Bell along with all your belongings are being escorted to a public weighbridge.’
I stared at the cop and then said. ‘I don’t consider that good news when they were supposed to be half way to London by now. What the hell happened?’
‘Calm down Mr Blakely,’ Sergeant Sylvester said, ‘All I can tell you is the lorry will be weighed and it won’t be allowed back on the road until it has offloaded the excess weight.’
‘I need to get there then. I need to help out.’
‘You could, but you may not get there before it closes.’
‘YOU MEAN THESE PLACES CLOSE?’
I couldn’t imagine anything more ridiculous than my present situation. I now had Julie stuck in some tinpot village in south Devon and waiting for me to rescue her. Carl, no mention of him, must have done a runner driving a van that oughtn’t to be on the road and now it seems Sean and my kids, and all my worldly possessions, have been hauled off to a public weighbridge somewhere in Somerset. I licked my lips. I could really do with a liquorice allsort.
I looked at Butty picking his nose.
‘Can I trouble you for the address and directions to Clyst St George?’ I asked levelly.
When I steered the Transit into the car park behind the tiny police station in Clyst St George and parked up behind Julie’s Astra it was twelve-fourteen. I saw the Astra’s windscreen was a spider’s web of cracks.
The police station was a bungalow, set in tidy gardens of evergreen, low-maintenance shrubs. The sign “Police” above the pair of glass doors at the top of a short flight of steps was the only indication it was a police station. I saw Julie, waving frantically at me behind the glass doors. I wondered why she hadn’t come out to meet me.
I signaled for Julie to come out and I went over to inspect the damaged windscreen. I looked back when I heard her banging on the glass. She was mouthing words I couldn’t quite make out. Irritated, I went up the steps and yelled through the glass.
‘What?’ I said. ‘You coming out or what?’
Julie said, ‘I can’t the doors are locked and the copper went on a callout, he said he needed to lock me in.’
I said, ‘great how long will he be, only I need to use the telephone to call a windscreen company.’ Julie shouted back ‘How the hell should I know, he didn’t say, and how come it took so long for you to get here?’
I tried the door handle. She was right. It was locked. The other side of the glass I saw Julie’ face had gone dark with anger.
My mood was no better. We were both tired.
Ten minutes later the duty copper came back with a bag of fish and chips. The smell reminded me I hadn’t eaten a thing since the two slices of toast at seven this morning.
The PC did at least apologise for keeping me waiting. By way of recompense he allowed me to use the station phone to make a couple of calls. First off I arranged for a windscreen repair company to come out and fix Julie’s car. I was told it would cost three hundred and fifty pounds. I was glad I’d had the good sense to include windscreen cover with my vehicle insurance providers, who I called up next. The young man that I spoke to was keen to help me. ‘Yes, Mr Blakely, I can confirm you have windscreen cover, so we are happy to pay for that. How much were you quoted?’ I said, ‘Three-hundred and fifty pounds.’ He said, ‘that is certainly a good quote Mr Blakely and one that we would be happy to cover. There is just the matter of the four hundred pounds excess that you need to pay us before we can process this.’
‘But I have a quote for three hundred and fifty pounds to supply and fit!’ I protested.
‘That’s good then, Mr Blakely. It’ll save you fifty pounds.’
An hour later, Julie had a new windscreen. I waved the fitter goodbye having given him a rubber cheque. I felt bad about that, but what else could I do?
Julie was in her car waiting to drive away when I thought I should explain what had happened. I reached in the passenger door and lifted Rats off the seat and climbed in putting him on my lap. I ruffled his head. She looked at me like I was weird.
‘What!’ She demanded. ‘What you done?’
I needed to keep her calm. I didn’t want us to be having a domestic, outside a police station for chrissake. I started off by holding up the palms of my hands. ‘Now, I need you to stay calm because I am on top of the situation.’ The minute I said she needed to remain calm Julie flipped. Her eyes blazed at me.
‘What have you done? Tell me what the hell you have done. Where’s my children and where’s all my furniture?’
It was as if she knew. Women could do that… so annoying. I said, ‘look you’ve had a tough morning Julie.’ I genuinely felt sorry for her. I thought about all the crap that she had had to go through over the past two years. What right had I to feel sorry for myself? Wasn’t it my fault, the mess we were in?
‘Tough doesn’t come close.’ Julie snapped. ‘And you still haven’t told me what you’ve done.’
I patted her hand. ‘I said, ‘my plan may not have factored in all the complications that might have happened.’
‘By complications, you mean my windscreen getting broken?’ Julie said suspicious there was other stuff her husband wasn’t telling her.
‘Uh huh. That and other things.’ I replied.
‘What other things?’ Her voice sounded hard.
Someone at one time advised me, if someone, especially your wife was to get upset, the first thing you should do was to acknowledge her feelings. You should never, ever, not under any circumstances, tell her she oughtn’t to get upset. Personally I think that’s a load of codswallop.
‘Now,’ I said, wanting to keep her calm, ‘you really oughtn’t get upset…’ Hearing me say that she immediately became really upset.
‘Just tell me what the hell you’ve done.’
‘Here’s the thing Julie,’ I said….’
Julie allowed me to explain what I knew which wasn’t much.
‘How the hell could you allow my babies to become abandoned at some… some, bloody weighbridge?’
I could see the veins in her neck standing out.
‘Where the bloody hell are all my belongings? Don’t you… don’t you dare tell me you don’t know where my stuff is and where my babies are?’
I decided to go back over that piece of advice, maybe give it a try. I said. ‘Tell me how you are feeling honey.’ It came out sounding cringe-worthy. Those words acted like a red rag to a bull.
For the next few minutes I nodded dumbly while Julie questioned my ancestry, my I.Q, my management skills, and a few more of my shortcomings. I wasn’t surprised she chose to mention my inside leg measurements. (Whenever I bought a pair of trousers I always had to have them shortened.)
‘Ok,’ I said climbing out the car and placing Rats back in the seat. ‘Let me go back inside the police station and I will ask that copper where the weighbridge is. I will go on ahead go find the removal lorry and the boys.’
‘God what have I married?’ Julie said. ‘You have now managed to lose our babies and all of our belongings.’
‘They are hardly babies Julie, ‘I said. ‘Robbie is an adult, and Daniel is at secondary school.’ I held out my hand to take hold of hers. She slapped it aside.
‘Just go find them.’
‘Ok…ok,’ I said. ‘You go straight to the new house. I will go to the weighbridge, find the others and then I’ll get there as soon I can. Now stop worrying. I have it all in hand.’
I heaved a huge sigh of relief waving Julie off. I was glad she was on her way. Bless her; she’d had such a bad morning. I couldn’t blame her being cross with me. I was angry with myself. If we had left yesterday, instead of going down the pub last night, we’d have been settled in by now. Next time, and I hope it is a good many years off we will do things my way. I drove out the police station car park hoping that by the time I got to the weighbridge centre Sean and Robbie will have got things straightened out.
I swung the Transit out onto the narrow High Street of Clyst St George and with a hand-drawn map of how to find the weighbridge I set off thinking by the time we get our stuff to London it’ll be after midnight. I wondered what our new neighbours would make of that?
My carefully crafted plan was fast turning into a National Lampoon Vacation Movie.
After a few frustrating wrong turns, forty-six minutes later I drove through the open gates of the weighbridge centre. Keeping to ten miles an hour I followed the signs for the weighbridge office. The whole vicinity seemed deathly quiet. I began to worry the place was closed.
I came to a low red brick building with a steel contraption set in the road that I guessed was the weighing mechanism.
I didn’t know what to think when I could see no sign of Sean’s removal lorry or Carl’s Escort van. I began to think that I’d gone to the wrong weighbridge centre. After a thorough search I had to conclude they weren’t here. I was angry with the copper in Clyst St George who had told me the police in this region only used this centre. I braked and kept the engine running facing the way I just came in. I was just wondering what to do next when I saw the top of a white lorry come around the bend. I didn’t want to get my hopes up so I told myself it wasn’t Sean’s lorry. When it came into view I cried out, ‘oh my God it is Sean.’ Following right behind I saw the rusted Ford Escort van. Tight behind that was a police patrol car. I waved back at Robbie who was waving at me through the windshield.
Having escorted the overweight lorry to the weighbridge at Cullompton Sergeant Mike Trowers was done here. He was about to turn around and leave when he saw the driver of a White Ford Transit van waving at the lorry driver. Lesley Alsop saw him too.
‘ I wouldn’t mind betting that is Uncle Art,’ Lesley said. ‘The one whose wife has gone missing.’
‘We had better have a chat with him then.’ Said Trowers unbuckling his seat belt and getting out of the patrol car.
I was chatting with Sean, who was telling me about how the lorry became bogged down in the soft verge and then the police had arrived, and messed things up, when I saw over his shoulder a police sergeant and a female cop heading my way. I sensed trouble.
Trowers thought the man looked deranged, certainly capable of murder.
‘Mr Art Blakely?’
‘How’s your wife?’
I was taken aback by his manner, this copper who hadn’t bothered to introduce himself.
‘Julie? Oh she’s fine thanks.’ I said confused.
‘Would you mind saying what you done with her?’ Lesley Alsop wanted to catch him out, see how he reacted.
Trowers gave her a look, thinking she might as well have said what was on her mind: what you done with her body!
‘Done with her?’ I said now alarmed at the implication that I might be a murderer. Where’d they get that idea? I looked over at Carl who seemed about to say something.
‘Do you know something about this Carl? What are they talking about? Julie is fine,’ I turned to face the Sergeant.’ I last saw her at the police station in Clyst St George. Her windscreen needed replacing. You can check with the copper on duty there if you like. He’ll tell you.’
As if to say, Lesley you are such a twit, Trowers flashed PC Alsop a look.
‘Was it you who planned this house move?’
I didn’t like the way he said that, slimy like. ‘Yeah,’ I said, prickly. ‘And it was a good plan until you lot turned up. If we’d have left yesterday, as I had wanted, we’d have been settled in our new house by now.’
Trowers waggled his head at Alsop, indicating the car. ‘Lets go. We are off duty now.’
‘You finished questioning me? Can I go now? I have a house move to reorganise.’
‘Yeah we’re done here. You go and have a nice day.’
I watched them head over to their car. l remembered that Rambo had said the same thing. I wondered if all the coppers down here were programmed to say, “you have a good day.” As in: “Mr Joe blogs I am charging you with murder. You have good day now.”
I was drinking hot brown sewage courtesy of the vending machine in the weighbridge office when Sean told me he had a plan. After what I had gone through, I was happy to delegate.
This was Sean’s plan:
‘We offload enough stuff to make the removal lorry legal again. Then what we take off we will pick up later. In the meantime Lenny and Robbie will wait here to guard it. We all set off for the house in Streatham and then unload the three vans and Julie’s car. Carl and me will then drive over to my yard; it’s only a half hours drive, and we pick up a smaller removal van. Then Carl and me, we drive back here and pick up the rest of the stuff and Lenny and Robbie. Art, you should get off now. The rest of us can do what’s needed here. We will see you at the house later. How’s that sound?’
‘Not bad.’ I said nodding. ’However, there is one flaw in your plan. You know what that is?’
‘Yeah the Escort van might not make it to London.’ Sean admitted.
‘Hey,’ Carl said. ‘The van will get there ok!’
Even the times when Carl displayed a tenuous grip on reality I loved his optimism.
I threw the dregs of my coffee on the concrete yard and said, ‘ok, lets get this convoy back on the road.
I was worried about my two boys, Christ what they must be going through! I took them aside. I needed to know they were ok.
‘How you guys doing?’
‘Fine Dad, but you look a little deranged,’ Robbie said and grinned. ‘You sure you’re alright?’
‘Yeah. You look like crap Dad.’ Daniel said.
I gave them both a gentle punch on the shoulder. ‘Nearly over eh? Didn’t we do well?’
‘Yeah you done good Dad.’ Robbie said.
I fished around in my pocket and found Robbie some coins. It was small comfort to me to know that although he was going to be hanging around this place for God knows how long, he could at least get some chocolate bars, crisps and cold drinks from the vending machine.
I felt awful driving off, leaving: Sean, Carl, Robbie, Lenny and Daniel, Solomon the Bassett hound and the two guinea pigs now squeaking in their cage tied on the Escort van’s roof rack, but I didn’t see I had a choice. I swore that if I one day if I was lucky enough to hit the lottery jackpot I would repay these guys.
It was a little after eight at night when I got to the house in Streatham. I was relieved to see the Astra parked at the kerb. Rat’s the Yorkie barked furiously when I rang the doorbell. I was reminded we weren’t supposed to have pets. Fortunately, Julie had thought to put the tea bags, the coffee and the kettle in her car.
We still had a problem. One of us was supposed to have picked up our daughter Louise, on a break from Dance College, hours ago. Waiting at Julie’s mums flat in Tooting she must be going insane with worry and be thinking we had died. We should have called her to let her know what had happened. I imagined that Julie had, and she blamed me, saying that I was supposed to have rung her. Huh, when did that conversation take place?
Julie said, ‘you wait here for Carl and Sean and I’ll drive over to my mums and get Louise. You’ll need to be here to supervise the unloading.’
Louise had every right to be angry with us. I tried to explain what kind of a day I’d had.
‘Yeah, but you could have called to let me know what was happening,’ she sobbed. ’I thought you’d all died in an accident. I have been so worried.’
What could I say? She was right.
It was the lights of the lorry bleeding through the curtains that got Julie and me up off the sofa. In our rush to get the front door open we crashed into each other. I can’t explain how relieved I was seeing the removal lorry pull up outside. And… astonishingly, Carl was there, smiling out the windscreen. The rusted old Ford Escort van had made it then!
Daniel climbed out the passenger door of the Escort and then went around the back to let Solomon out. Julie. Louise and Rats made a fuss of him in the crowded doorway before Daniel got him to drink some water and found him some dog biscuits and then saw to the Guinea pigs. What had happened to the “no pets rule” I had agreed to abide by?
Trying not to wake the neighbours, we offloaded the removal lorry and the Escort van.
Despite being tired, Sean and Carl turned right around and headed off to his yard to pick up a smaller van. They would then drive this back to weighbridge centre to pick up Lenny and Robbie and the rest of our furniture.
The streetlights had gone off two hours ago. The sky in Devon that we had left behind had been inky black, the stars bright and twinkling. There was an orange tint to the sky in Streatham. I couldn’t see a single star.
Four hours later, Julie, Louise, Daniel and I ran out of the house to greet the others who had just arrived back from the weighbridge centre. God was I relieved to see them.
We did our best not to make any noise unloading this smaller van but I saw the bedroom curtains twitch in the houses opposite.
Like exhausted pack mules we ferried boxes and furniture into the house and garden.
Four in the morning, finally, we shut the doors on the empty vans.
Exhausted, and not talking much we each sat on whatever we could find drinking the tea and coffee that Louise had made, Julie had found a couple of packets of biscuits.
Looking exhausted, Sean, with the aid of his crutch, managed to get to his feet. ‘I have to get going. I got another removal job this afternoon.’
I groaned. God! That poor man.
‘What will happen about the overloading thing?’ I said. ‘Will the police prosecute you?’
‘I don’t know Art. They may not. I did explain I wasn’t working, and that I was only doing you a favour, so hopefully, they will let me off. They did say they wont make an issue of me driving with a broken leg.’
I looked at Carl, who was getting ready to leave. I said, ‘what about the offences the police have got on you, driving that heap of crap. I did tell you not to take it.’
Carl shrugged. ‘Having no MOT or any road tax is no big deal. Thanks to you, I did at least have insurance. Getting caught without that would have been really bad news.’
Sean nudged Lenny who was sitting on the floor his back propped up against a cardboard box that was coming apart at the seams. ‘Lenny! You coming?’
Lenny grunted, rubbed the back of his hand under his nose and blinked. ‘Yeah, where we going?’
‘Home, Lenny,’ Carl said.’ Come on get up.’
I must have thanked them a thousand times on the doorstep and then again out in the road.
By the time I got back inside the house and closed the door, Julie, Louise, Daniel, Robbie, and even Solomon and Rats, were bedded down on whatever they could find.
A little after five in the morning, unable to sleep, yet oh so tired; I sat on the lounge floor with my back against the wall and my knees up. I had to smile listening to the melody of contented snores ringing through our new home.
Finally, I managed to trudge up the stairs. I looked in on Daniel who had found a bed in the smallest bedroom. The landing light splashed a soft yellow hue on my youngest who was curled up with Solomon. I found Julie and Louise sharing a double bed in the master bedroom. Robbie was sleeping on a mattress in another bedroom.
Me…. I couldn’t settle. I’d heard it said you could be too tired to sleep… but I think for far too long, our lives had been in a chronic state of confusion. Now, for how long, I couldn’t say, I was in a comfortable space in my life.
I found a mattress, settled down and closed my eyes. I was fast asleep when a fist hammering on my front door woke me. With a cry I sat bolt upright.
I had been dreaming it. I wasn’t really back in our house in Crawley.
The next day I rang Sean to make sure they all got home ok, and to thank him again for all his help. I could hardly believe it when he told me his radio had caught fire on the last trip from the weighbridge to London. Without pulling over, he ripped it out and threw it out the window. Sean told me Carl had had a flat tyre on the same trip. I couldn’t help but wonder if some belligerent and deranged spirit, angry at our attempt to escape Devon, had been determined to crush our hopes of a fresh new life.
Three years had passed. I had been offered a school caretaker job that came with a detached house in Wimbledon. Julie and I were about to move house again.
I was thinking it would be a nice gesture to ask Sean to move us. He’d get paid this time, He might be grateful for the work.
I gave him a call.
‘Sean… me old mate. It’s Art.’
‘Yeah it’s me Art Blakely… Lenny’s brother…. You helped us move from Devon. Remember the “old Convoy” Sean? That was a laugh eh?’
I dropped the jokey tone when Sean didn’t laugh. He didn’t say a word.
‘Sean, I know that last time, the move didn’t quite go to plan, but I was wondering… you see, this time I have a foolproof plan….
Julie said, ‘is Sean going to do it?’
I shook my head. ‘Erm, he said he was too busy.’
THE MOVE is a true story of a family in crisis and how they coped or often didn’t cope. Art Blakely’s small plumbing business had been made bankrupt and there was a repossession order on his house. After hiring a huge removal lorry Art and his family packed up their home and fled Crawley and the bailiffs hoping for a dream life in glorious Devon. Hoping their creditors wouldn’t find them they rented a bleak cottage on the edge of Dartmoor. It wasn’t long before Art lost his job when the Victorian attitude of the employers finally got to him. Nine months on, now penniless, cold, starving and jobless their dream new life had become a living nightmare. Their only option was to move house again. This time they were moving to London. With no money for moving costs, Art put together a team of willing if inept, house movers. A friend, who owned a removal lorry, the only expert on the team, turned up with his broken leg in a plaster cast. It was a set back but it wasn’t going to change Art’s plan to lead a convoy of four clapped out or illegal vehicles up the M5. Before long they became separated as one by one they got pulled over by the police. Now Art Blakely’s entourage including two dogs and a couple of guinea pigs were spread out over four counties. Filled with extraordinary incidents and ridiculous people, THE MOVE will move you to tears and have you laughing out loud.