Moggerhanger, p.33
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       Moggerhanger, p.33

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  Ordering Dismal to stay close, I opened the gate across the lane, clattered it shut behind and, luger in one hand and air pistol primed in the other, I walked by the hedgerow so as to be invisible to anyone keeping a lookout.

  During our walk down the more or less straight lane for about a kilometre, grey clouds let fall drops of water, as if to repeat the foul weather of my first visit. Dismal, hating wetness of any sort, looked forlornly back to the all-round comfort of the car, but I gave a stern gaze and waved him on. A slug from my air pistol missed a fat wood pigeon that lifted in front as we came to the stream, the shower pattering its flowing surface which provided drinking water for cooking and cleaning.

  The house, if such it could be called, was built from local stone, and weathered by several hundred years of rain, not to mention rotting autumn leaves that never dried. It was so concealed against a bank just off the lane that even a happy hiker trudging along the bridlepath would pass without knowing it was there. I’d used the place and its glum surroundings in the novel I had dashed off for Blaskin that won him the Windrush Prize.

  A whiff of smoke came out of the chimney, and between house and stream was a collapsed deckchair with torn canvas, bits of dinner plate, and a couple of rusty tins. Bending low under the windows to reach the door unobserved, I took the key from my pocket, only to find the lock already hanging from its screws, telling that somebody was in the house.

  My boot hit the wood, and Dismal’s leap reminded me he’d once worked for the police. Moggerhanger’s daughter Polly had gone out with a detective so that her father could get gen on attitudes to drugs in the Force, and to sound him out for collaboration, and on her cooing over Dismal and patting him on the arse, the tec made her a present of him, saying he was useless anyway. Polly had soon tired of my favourite dog, and by a chain of circumstances he had come down to me.

  No one was in the kitchen-living room which, since my last stay, looked as if Moggerhanger had spent a bit to make it more habitable, on the assumption I supposed that no matter how fearless his minions were on the streets of London they couldn’t be expected to put up with a solitude that reminded them too much of durance vile.

  Whoever had been there lately couldn’t have been very tidy, because several fag ends were littered around the fireplace. A pair of smouldering socks with the toes burnt away hung from a piece of stick.

  The main improvement to the house was that electricity had been put in, a welcome change to storm lamps and candles. The walls of the room had been plastered and painted white, giving a more civilised aspect as opposed to the previous raw surface, and a butane gas bottle for cooking stood by the sink. Also a telephone had been installed, and I wondered whether whoever had snapped off the lock had passed a long day making calls to his seven brothers in different sheep-shagging stations of the Australian Outback, in which case Moggerhanger would have kittens when it came to paying the bill.

  Flicking the light switch, necessary even on a sunny day, a prime and corpulent rat gleamed at me contemptuously before pattering upstairs. Such feral tenants, smart as they were, could hardly have forced the lock, or made a fire still alive in the grate. More likely the house had been broken into by the crew of the black hatchback, either last night or this morning and, looking in, they had seen I wasn’t there, so went to search somewhere else.

  I walked up the lane to the car, soaked by rain, in spite of my three hundred quid Burberry, and drove it down to the side of the house for unloading supplies. I noticed the waterbutt overflowing, so jagged a length of stick up the pipe, till liberated water gushed over the slimy cobbles into the stream where it belonged.

  All stores stowed, Dismal’s tongue hung out at the sight of three spoons going into the pot. I made tea and, on throwing him a couple of cakes, heard a long human yawn from upstairs, and the thump of somebody’s feet as he got out of bed. I had been careless in not searching every room, but the house had felt empty, and no car had been parked nearby.

  Signalling Dismal for silence, I stood with the air pistol pointing at the wooden stairs. More mumbled words reminded me that the definition of a cottage was that you can hear sounds from every nook and cranny between its four walls. Whoever he was hadn’t realised it was the whistling kettle that woke him from a dream about childhood holidays on a steam train.

  “Oh dear,” I heard. “Oh dear me.” He stretched, and shuffled across the room above, sounding weak and sleepy, though I was taking no chances. Neither was Dismal, who lay like a giant spring, a twitch now and again riding across his back.

  The door at the top of the stairs opened, and he came down with hands to his eyes, a tallish well set man who I hoped didn’t have a weak heart, because at the bottom step the Hound of the Baskervilles roared across the room, knocking him arse over tit to the floor. His gurgling cry signified that a dream had turned into his worst nightmare. I kept the pistol levelled. “Dismal, come off him. You’ve eaten enough today already.”

  The man’s face, not very clean, turned pale from fright. Even without Dismal his pathetic expression might have been normal, his face long in more ways than one. I placed him in his fifties, though shaving off the grey stubble could have marked him as younger. “Who the fuck are you?” I snapped.

  He began to cry, which so disturbed me in a grown man I wanted to give him a punch in the head so that he would have something to cry for. “I’m the caretaker.”

  “You lying pillock. There’s no such person. Show me your permit.”

  He stood. “Will you hold that dog back?”

  “Not unless you show proof of who you are, otherwise I’ll tell him to eat you, though I’m not sure he’d enjoy it. What are you doing here?”

  He wiped his eyes with a piece of rag, and stopped blubbing, as good a piece of acting as I’d ever seen. “I’m a bloke on the tramp,” he said. “I stumbled across this place last night on my way north. I was done in, and thought I’d have a day or two’s rest.”

  “So you broke the lock to get in? I’ll have the police on you, for trespassing and criminal damage.”

  “It wasn’t me,” he whined. “I found it like that.”

  He had no provincial accent, so could have been educated, unless he’d taught himself by listening to the BBC, though you could hardly rely on that these days. I lowered the gun. “I stand no nonsense. If you don’t give me any aggro you might be all right.” I was angry at reacting so violently to a harmless down and out. “Sit down, and tell me about yourself.”

  With every bone shaking he lowered himself into a chair. Rain flailed at the window, chilling the room. I lit paper and wood in the fireplace but the homely blaze didn’t cure the damp. He looked uneasily at the worsening weather. “You aren’t going to throw me out in that, are you?”

  I poured tea for him. “No, I’ll wait till there’s two feet of snow.”

  This brought a smile, from a long way down in his body. “At least you have a sense of humour.”

  “Don’t bank on that.” I sometimes thought a sense of humour was my worst failing, but I let him eat a cake, and drink his tea. Dismal growled as if the man was scoffing what was rightfully his. “You’d better start by telling me your name.”

  From across the hearth he put a hand forward to be shaken. His nails were in mourning, but the grip was firm, his gesture friendly. I was ready nevertheless with fist and boot should he make a dodgy move, but I gave him a cigar, as if about to interrogate a prisoner of war, deciding that the kinder he was treated the sooner I’d get the truth.

  “You’re very hospitable,” he said, “and I appreciate that. My name’s Peter Crimple.” He picked a twig from the fire to light up. “Five years ago I was an engineering supervisor, and was made redundant. Don’t ask what job that is. I hardly knew myself, and in any case it would be too complicated to explain, which I’ve forgotten how to do, anyway. The firm gave me a fairly golden handshake, which was nice of them, bec
ause I read it went bust six months later. I handed the money to my wife, though the house was already paid for, and our two girls married. I didn’t want to stay married. Well, I wouldn’t, would I? What man would? I’d had more than enough, so told my wife I was going out one morning to buy cigarettes, and didn’t go back. I haven’t seen her since. Two years ago I picked up a Big Issue on a bus and saw my photo. Underneath was a message from her begging me to get in touch, but I didn’t. Being on the road was punishment enough for doing what I’d done. At least it gives me nothing to feel guilty about, but I’ll never settle down again. I like walking about the country with a rucksack, because it’s amazing how kind people can be to a middle-aged chap like me. Mind you, I try not to look the hippy sort. Many’s the time I’ve been dropped a pound or two, after getting into conversation, or I’ve been invited into a café for a cup of tea. Sometimes I’ll call at a farm and ask if they’ve got any casual work, but they never have. I’ve often been given the leftovers from a meal and invited to sleep in a barn, though. Maybe people think that there for the Grace of God go I. My health’s improved a lot since I started on my travels. I used to have all sorts of aches and pains at work, and many a time I was so tired my head would droop on the desk and I would go half to sleep. That doesn’t happen anymore. Oh, I know you caught me having a nap upstairs, but no man’s perfect. Who could resist the sight of a bed? But it was too damp and cold to be comfortable.”

  “So that’s your story?” I said, after he’d kept schtum for a couple of minutes. I didn’t believe a word of his rigmarole, and knew it was going to be difficult to get the truth out of a bloke who had been provided with such a good script. It would be hard enough to get the truth out of myself if ever I wanted to, in which case how can you trust somebody to tell the truth to you? Yet not being able to trust yourself might mean you could trust yourself absolutely, since you didn’t believe—or admit to believing—that there was anything to trust in you. All I knew was that every case was different, so who better than yourself therefore to know exactly where your untrustworthiness lay? It didn’t matter whether or not you knew yourself in the end if you knew that.

  So I did know that all he had told me had been written specially for him, and he’d rehearsed it over and over again, probably in front of a full-length mirror. The question was, who had put him up to it? If he was an out-of-work actor who could blame him for taking on the role? Someone I knew who was acquainted with quite a few actors used them to flesh out the more sensational parts of his documentaries, and I wanted Mr so-called Peter Crimple to come out with the name before I rammed it in one piece down his throat.

  “And you,” he said hopefully, “what’s your story?”

  “I don’t have one, at least not for you. Since you’re in my house it’s up to you to tell me one, and you have, but I don’t believe any of it.”

  He looked into his empty tea cup, hoping I would refill it. I didn’t. “During all my married life,” he said, his tone saddened by my neglect, “I was a devil to my children, and a demon to my wife. Is that the sort of truth you want?”

  “How come she sent your mugshot to the Big Issue, then?”

  “She wanted me back. You always miss whatever you’ve got used to. No matter how bad things were, as time goes on it gets to seem they weren’t all that bad.”

  He really had been given a good script, though I would have expected no less from Wayland Smith, or Margery Doldrum. “This cottage is part of Lord Moggerhanger’s estate,” I said, “and I’m his steward, checking up on his properties around the country. If he walked in now and assumed it was you who broke the door lock he would hold your head under the water in the stream till even the minnows had to dart away at the horrified look on your face as you were dying. In other words, he’d drown you without a thought, just for a laugh.” Dismal’s tail thumped the floor, sensing my impatience. “All I know is you’re giving me the runaround, and I like it less and less.”

  From looking obstinate and mardy he turned sarcastic: “I just don’t see how it can be that you and I have acquaintances in common.”

  I put more wood on the fire. “You wouldn’t be here if we didn’t. You couldn’t have stumbled on this place by accident. Moggerhanger told me that if I found anyone here they had to be from the Green Toe Gang, and I was to all but kill whoever it was.” I looked into his shifting eyes. “You’ve just eaten your execution breakfast, even though it’s teatime.”

  He stood up, and ran to the stairfoot, followed by Dismal. “No, please. I don’t belong to them.”

  “But you know about such a mob?”

  “Honestly, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  I honed my voice to razor sharp: “Sic him!”

  Dismal pushed him down, sat on his legs, and stared him in the eye. “He really is partial to human beings,” I said, “and he hasn’t had a tin of dog food for a couple of hours, though I don’t suppose your flesh would taste like the finest canine caviar.”

  Dismal farted so close to his face it was assumed I’d given him the nod, a slur on my eternally good nature, though I was amused at his twisted lips, as if about to throw up. “I’d be only too glad to tell you what you want to know, if I knew what it was you wanted to know.”

  He had been sent on a recce to Peppercorn Cottage by someone who had been here before, and that was Wayland Smith, when he was held prisoner for a few days because Percy Blemish, the temporary caretaker, had caught him sniffing around for evidence of Moggerhanger’s drug dealings. “Listen, Sunshine, I’m losing patience. If you don’t tell me sharpish who sent you I’ll do something I won’t tell you about first. But you won’t have many teeth left by the time I’m finished.” I was silent, idled the poker in the fire and, when the tip glowed, lit another cigar. “Are you ready to talk?”

  I called Dismal off, who then did what he liked best, sloping out his length before the fire. “Come back and sit down,” I said to the interloper, “but no more nonsense. Tell me what I want to know.”

  I felt like floorclothing the smile off his mug when he said: “I was sent up here by a friend of mine called Wayland Smith. He’d heard of a merger between Lord Moggerhanger and the Green Toe Gang, who deal mostly with the drug routes of the Continent. Moggerhanger wants to get in on it.”

  This was no surprise. “When did you hear that?”

  “A few weeks ago. Wayland told me.”

  It was before I set out on my errand to Greece, Moggerhanger wanting to find out how the Green Toe Gang would deal with me. Maybe he now considered them so incompetent in their endeavours that he would be less likely to seek a merger, no matter what Wayland Smith assumed. “So he sent you up here to look for evidence? There isn’t any. Tell him that. And tell him as well that he’s a right prick, with his investigative journalism, as he calls it. He’s a little boy with a toy he can’t let go of, only it’s not a toy, and if he doesn’t take his snipe nose out of things it’ll blow up in his smarmy mug. If I was you I wouldn’t have anything to do with him. He only wants everybody off drugs so’s he can feed them the opium of communism. But you can tell him from me that the only place he’ll get the gen on the Green Toe Gang will be in Amsterdam. As for Moggerhanger, tell him to try his luck at Spleen Manor in Yorkshire. I’m not sure he knows about that place, but I don’t mind if you put him in the picture, because if he goes there he’ll come away with his head on back to front. Now get out of this cottage, before I do you in.”

  He looked suitably appalled: “I’ll tell Wayland what you said. But I can’t go out in this rain, can I? It’s getting dark as well.”

  “I didn’t suppose you came without an umbrella and an overcoat, so get your gear from upstairs, and be out in five minutes. Tell Wayland Smith I don’t reckon much of the script he made you learn. I could have written a much better one myself. And tell him as well I’ll punch his commissar clock next time I see him in The Hair of the Dog.”


  He trod downstairs clad for the weather, and I watched him out of the door, Dismal’s tail wagging with pleasure to see him go. But he came back half a minute later because the rain was belting down: “Can I call a taxi? I have the number.”

  “So that was how you got here? All right, but have him meet you at the paved road,” I said as he dialled. “You’ll be just in time if you leave now.” I couldn’t wait to get shot of the fool, all but pushing him out this time, sorry to see the rain lessening slightly as I closed the door after him. A rat had come out of its hole, maybe to see him off, and the shot from my air pistol that sent it squeaking away fetched a neat hole in the plaster.

  As I prepared a supper of sausages, bacon, beans and fried bread, Dismal nuzzled my ankles, and salivated at smells that cottages were built for. The rain sluiced down, and though increasing the water supply—as if I needed it—it would suitably soak daft Peter on his traipse to the taxi. Better still, I thought, if he disappeared without trace crossing the bog at the bottom of the lane.

  I put a bowl of tea on the floor for Dismal, and half a dozen chocolate biscuits as his aperitif. Though he hadn’t so far saved my life he had sometimes guarded my sanity, so had to be rewarded with the best treatment. After our feed I went upstairs, and didn’t much like finding both beds covered with multicoloured rags as if half a ton of Smarties had been poured from an invisible chute in the ceiling. I heaped them into a corner, deciding to bed down by the fire, and not even look into the smaller room that the shepherd’s eight children must have slept in a hundred years ago.

  The noise of the telephone was a shock, and I let it ring, assuming it couldn’t have anything to do with me. But who was whoever it was trying to get in touch with? I worried for a moment, to think anyone imagined there could be anyone here to speak to. I would answer if it went three times, but it didn’t, so I sat by the fire with Dismal, satisfying my intellectual requirements with a Sidney Blood called The Morbid Cellar, recognising the pen of Gilbert Blaskin in the first chapter, others interspersed by less literate ramblings from Bill Straw, and a few parts written by myself. Neither Kenny Dukes, nor any other Sidney Blood aficionado would spot the different styles as they lapped it up. I threw the rubbishy tome into the fire, which almost put it out.

 
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