The morning was a glorious mixture of early autumn that was offering a portent of winter.
The air as still as high summer but the sun glinted low in the horizon and shimmered over the edges of frost on the long grass. A few days ago it would have been dew, drying in the warming sun, a bubble reflecting the colours of the rainbow but this morning their hard edges glittered just before they slid to the base of the stalk.
“Getting chilly now Old Jack Frost is poking about.”
PC Copper looked down at the huddled man and waited a good few seconds for a response. The man sitting on an old pine log remained silent as he leaned over the small fire he was tending. It was set between a triangle of three roughly equal stones and as both men watched, the flames pushed through the smoke of the damper twigs that had been laid over the original tinder.
“Looks like you’ve got it.”
“Yeah”, responded Joe, still not looking up but adding some more twigs in criss-cross fashion and finally a full set around the fire as a low cart-wheel. Smoke returned but was soon outpaced by flame and the fire was established.
Both men looked on with satisfaction.
“Cuppa?” asked Joe and lifted the small aluminium pan and settled it onto the stones.
Walter looked into it, the water looked clean but the inside of the pot was scarred with burnt remains. “Tempting but I am due back at the station and Molly gets annoyed if she can’t sell me a mug and biscuit.”
Joe said nothing.
“Getting chilly at night, I reckon. Out here in the open”. PC Walter Copper looked round the ground of the now disused timber yard.
“Got me bivvy,” he nodded backwards at the pile of timbers beside him. “an’ me dog.”
Walter looked to the half collapsed building. It was less than that, it was originally a rough-built three sided shed with a few timbers across the roof and some corrugated iron sheets nailed topside to keep the weather out. “Not seen your dog, where is it?”
“She’s away. Cuppa?”
During the war this little yard had been hastily set up as a sawmill and timber yard by the owner of the forest. It was a rough mile outside the streets of Burnthorpe but the lane it was on crescented from the end of his beat back to the start and as there were a couple of dilapidated buildings and some well used stopping places for couples to park in, Walter would sometimes use the route, especially knowing Joe was currently in residence. Twice a year, late spring and late summer a small community of gipsy caravans would also appear briefly en-route or return from Appleby. The first to arrive and leave was their original Romany caravan with its horse nobly but slowly pulling up the hill, its occupants walking alongside with arms on the frame giving small but noticeable help over the rough edges of the guttered single width lane. A colt or two, maybe a filly tagged on behind, lead reins knotted to eyebolts at the rear. The oldest youth, boy or girl, would be astride a final horse with two or yearlings, horses or ponies trailing behind for the horse fair.
This day Joe was the only one Walter could find in residence and the conversation was mostly one way. Joe was no gypsy or tinker but one of the unsettled after the Second World War, or rather after the Korean War. He had been recalled for the latter, had seen some desperate times. Finally pensioned off and back in Civvy Street he was first unsettled then unable to stay in one place, inside or out, for more than a few days. He had grown peripatetic and after ten years had found an unusual sense of peace in what had become a circular tour around the fringes of villages and towns in the county, stopping and setting a bivouac among disused works, the gardens of abandoned grand houses. Almost anywhere where people had been but had now abandoned.
“Is it draughty in there?” Walter looked across and into the back of the broken-down shed. The large rusted high-toothed wheel sat in its grimed shackles, cemented in by ridges of rust and compacted sawdust. The bench it was fixed to was outside to the right of the shed and a belt underneath, rotting but still clinging together led from the gear wheels into the shed where it twisted over and round the wheel of its petrol powered motor, hidden in the shadow, lost to its own memories.
“If it’s windy.” Joe stirred the water in the pan with a nearby stick. As it boiled he poured some water over the old tea-leaves in his enamelled cup. With the pan back on the fire he carefully dropped a couple of eggs into it and stirred the cup again.
“Cuppa?”. He asked, proffering the still writhing tea-leaved cup.
“No thanks. Gotta get back to the station, Molly’s waiting on me.”
PC Copper retrieved his bike from where it had been leaning against an old platform stacked with empty petrol drums and logs the length of pit-props carefully saved by the last of the workmen, some fifteen years ago. The platform front edge was set on brick piles about eighteen inches off the ground, the rear on one layer of bricks, just enough to level it compared to the drop in the ground at that edge. He straightened the handlebars, set a pedal to its low point, put his left foot on it and scooted over the mud to the road.
With a “See you, Joe”, he scooted faster and circled his leg over the saddle, found the opposite pedal and sat down on the wide saddle. He got into the rhythm of pedalling, settled his backside more comfortably and set about getting the heavy bike back to the Police Station.
“No Sergeant, all quiet.”
“No wonder, your radio is off again!” The sergeant was exasperated, ” Switch it on! One more failure and I will have to log it. I will be pleased to do it, you will not!”
PC Copper, Walter, immediately pushed the switch on the hand piece and then on the battery pack. The static buzz and over it the squawk of a radio officer contacting men on the beat added to the tension by the front desk. Walter sighed inwardly and went to walk away.
“Wait. Your messages, Copper!”
Walter turned back to the sergeant and was given a pad sheet with name, address and complaint, in that order.
“Third one this week. You’ve spoken to the first two? ”
“Yes, Sarg. Nothing seen, no clues. It was windy, maybe that was it. Or kids. Most likely kids and I have heard nothing.”
“Yes, especially on your radio.”
Walter stopped, listened briefly for the quiet crackle of his radio and heard nothing. Sighing inwardly he put a hand down to the box on his belt, pushed the switch again and immediately was shouted at by the receiver hooked into his breast pocket.
“1249, will you answer this blessed thing or we have to assume you’re dead or missing!”
Looking at the Sergeant, PC 1249, Copper, held the button down and answered sheepishly. After a brief but heavy admonishment of his silence he was told, ” Your beat again. This is the fourth time, second today. Go to Rita Rankin, Alwyn’s Cottage. And keep your so and so radio switched on.”
The note in his hand had an address, name and the words: ‘ stolen washing – again.’ This address was near the turning point of the beat he had just returned from and Alwyn’s Cottage almost a stone’s throw from it too. He decided that as he had not sat down, as he still had his cycle clips on he might as well go back up the road and Vicarage Lane and cut through the churchyard to the bridle path and join the road by the house of the earlier theft and then trundle on to Alwyn’s. Trusting someone would still be there and not too irritated. He briefly wondered if the children at both houses were having some sort of washing war either against each other or jointly against their mothers. He really didn’t want to be running all over the town because of children’s pranks.
The sun had moved higher by the time he reached the first house and the cycling pleasant enough up to and through the churchyard, the bridle path was uncomfortable so he stood on the pedals as he cycled. As feared, Mrs Shanks was out. She had called very early in the morning from the phone box near her house. Had he listened to his radio he would have been able to visit her early on his initial rounds. But then he would still be going back again for this second call. The incline was slight but the road quite long and he was relieved to get to Alwyn’s Cottage and find Rita Rankin looking out of her cottage window.
She saw him, waved and gestured at her door and disappeared. Reappeared at the opening front door as he pushed his bike up the short gravel path.
‘Lean it against that rose-bush. Come in. I thought you were the postman, Reggie usually arrives about now and stops for a cuppa. Kettle is on, you’ll have some? Into the kitchen with you. Leave the door, Reg will just come in.’
The heavy bike sank into the rose bush, almost lying on the ground with the thorned branches springing out from behind the frame, pedals and wheels. Walter wished he hadn’t followed her directions but politely followed her into the kitchen. He also considered if Reggie the postman could be the culprit, sticking whatever got taken into his big canvas bag as he passed through. He probably went round all the houses that had reported the clothes missing. Maybe he was a Peeping Tom too? If it wasn’t him, maybe he had seen something. Walter stopped thinking when he was offered the mug of tea and asked if he wanted sugar.
“Yoohoo! Only me, hope the pot’s still hot” called a high pitched female voice.
“Just made, Reggie, mind the bike.”
A thin, frail looking woman in well worn Postal uniform came non too gently into the room, thudding her canvas bag on the floor. ‘It’s your bike then,’ she said to Walter, ‘ MIne’s on top of yours, you might have a bother picking it up, it looks heavy. Life-saver, this tea, always is, thanks dear,’ she said to Rita.
Walter raised his cup and they sipped in almost unison. He doubted if this postie would do any thieving of any sort, let alone clean washing. He had seen her with bag and bike round the old town and its outskirts many a time. They had literally passed each with a nod and a brief ‘morning’ or whatever. Sometimes it was as if they played tag as she would catch him up, overtake then stop to deliver a few letters then maybe catch him again before repeating with more deliveries. Neither had spoken much as they met, no need. She had been a land girl in 1943 and had never left the village. He had been born in Burnthorpe, grew up there, left and now returned and so their paths had kept crossing over the years but no real conversation ever occurred. He had never heard her name either.
“He’s after me knickers, Reggie,” Rita indicated with her cup of tea at Walter.
“Really?” she joined in with a smile, “Does he know where to look? Anyway, I thought you lost them a few days ago” Neither woman looked at Walter, trying to decide how far they could tease him before the young man got annoyed.
“I lost more last week, a bra and a pinny, both at the same time. Now it’s happened again!”
“Well, I suppose you’ve got nothing to wear now!” And both women burbled into their tea cups as P.C. Copper tried to keep an official straight face and allow the joking to subside. He replaced cup into saucer.
“It’s that I’ve come to talk about.”
‘It’s not talk, it’s action, she needs.” Cooed Reggie, then she was slapped on the knee by Rita and both women creased a little as they stifled a laugh by leaning forward, heads neatly touching before they sat up and settled their faces.
“Okay, we’ve had our little laugh, you had better get on with it now.” Rita smiled, slightly remorsfully as she spoke. Reggie suppressed a quick giggle but raised her cup to drink and hide the noise by slurping her tea.
PC Copper took out his notebook, switched off his radio and proceeded to ask his questions. When, what and any idea who or why.
The nub being just after or during hanging out the wet washing, early mornings. Pinafore and brassiere had been taken off the line, she thought and she knew her knickers had been removed from the washing basket on the grass as she had gone in doors to get more pegs and then put the kettle on the gas for a cup of tea. When she went out again she noticed they were gone, and the basket looked as though it had been rummaged.
“Rummaged?” Walter spoke, trying to decide if this would look official enough if he wrote it in the notebook. Reggie took another, quick swig at an empty cup.
“That’s right, all over the place, and two of me best knickers were gone.”
“Me new red ones, but I’m not having to describe ’em surely?” Rita wanted to draw a line at this point.
Walter reassured her but said she might have to identify them if they were found. No comment from Rita, Reggie managed to be still this time.
“And have you seen anyone around, acting strangely?”
“In the bushes you mean?” Snorted Reggie, “Sorry, it’s not funny, sorry.” She clasped her hands in her serge uniformed lap and composed herself.
“Only that tramp chap camping up the yard. He is not that odd really. Stays up there for a couple of weeks, moves on and returns whenever it is. Harmless.”
“Joe.” Walter wrote it down.
“Yes, he always gives me a wave if he sees me. If I am walking he asks if I have any post for him. I assume he is joking but he doesn’t sound like it. Or offers me a ‘cuppa’ but I usually stop here and have one with Rita if we have the time.” She looked across and their eyes met briefly in confirmation.
” I think he goes for a walk round about most days, he might have seen something. Goes down the farm and begs or steals eggs and milk sometimes. The farmer lets him take a bottle of milk from the churns he leaves out for the dairy lorry. I know he leaves him an empty bottle or two and eggs if he is at his camp. I will have a chat with him, he might know something.”
Walter tucked his notebook into his tunic pocket after hoicking the coiled wire of his radio out of the way. Stood and took his leave of the ladies, Rita Rankin, and, remembering just in time that she was Reggie, Regina Ward. Amazing, after years of nodding and casual greetings he had never known her name, well he did now.
Outside he had to untangle Reggie’s bike first then his from the rose bush. Between them they had flattened the briars and knocked off a few thorns but he hoped the late buds were undamaged, or at least capable of hanging on there until he left. Bumping down the steps of the path to the front gap, keeping the bike angled so the pedal missed his ankle as he walked, he decided to go and visit Joe again. If he was there he could have a chat and if he was away it would do no harm in having a nose around just in case there was anything to find. He doubted, he hoped, he would find nothing, but just in case the sergeant asked…….
“What’s this, you come for lunch?” Shouted Joe as Walter freewheeled into the old yard, braked and enthusiastically swung his leg over the saddle and scooted to a stop. ” You can have a cuppa! Want a cuppa?” He leaned forward and used his stick to stir the water in the old saucepan.
“No thanks, Joe, had one down the road, at Alwyn’s Cottage.”
“Oh,” was the response. He looked a little disappointed, maybe wary, thought Walter.
Walter decided he should be in ‘official mode’ this visit so declined the offer of the upturned log beside Joe and opted to stand near the layered pile of unwanted drums and pit-props on the platform. He cast his eyes round the site, nothing obviously lying around. He ought to look in the shed, behind the tarpaulin which Joe slept and or sheltered behind but he would have a chat first, he thought.
“Wasn’t you here this morning?” Queried Joe. He poured some of the boiling water into his enamel mug to re-use the tea leaves and put the pan back on the stones, over the fire. He tucked some pieces of wood into the fire to keep it burning well then dropped two eggs into still boiling water. The water calmed, a small stream of white drifted out of an eggshell and solidified as the heat regained control and the water started to bubble again.
PC Copper watched, his feet angled downwards on the slope of the ground. Not the best of places to have chosen, he realised. The platform was raised at the front edge on now flakey piles to keep it level and the ground sloped down quite steeply for a couple of yards until it flattened out at Joe’s fire and seating area.
Joe stirred his tea with the handy stick and reached back for a milk bottle perched on the flat top of an old tree stump and poured some into the still swirling liquid. Walter could see the remnants of the tea leaves circling even from that distance and was pleased he had turned down the offer of tea.
“Dog’s back”, said Joe, put down the mug and started the job of hooking the eggs out of the boiling water by tipping the saucepan a little and then adroitly using a branched twig like chopsticks. Both eggs on a piece of cloth by his feet he then topped up his tea with a drop of the water. This time he put the saucepan on the ground beside him.
“Cuppa tea?” He asked kindly having forgotten the previous rejections.
“Joe, there’s been complaints, well, thieving really”.
“Nope! Wer’n’t me. Farmer lets me have milk and some eggs when ‘e leaves ’em out. Eggs and bottles, like”.
“I don’t think it was you but I might have to look round your things, and this place, just so I can tell my sergeant I looked. You know how they can be.”
“I am one, I know how I can be. Is he the same as me? Look all you like, me kits as tidy as you like. Boiled egg?” He had started picking off the shells, daintily wiping bits that stuck to his fingers onto his trousers.
‘No, thanks, had something down at the Cottage.”
“Alwyn’s? She waved at me this morning, just before you arrived first time. Me dog had gone off. Then you arrived here for a cuppa. Then me dog came back. She’s a good girl, good girl.” Joe bit carefully into the egg, eating it fully de-shelled and watching out for yolk escaping through cracks. That gone, he repeated the exercise with the second egg.
Walter’s ankles hurt standing on the sloping ground, waiting, too polite to ask his questions or search the broken down shed without asking first. He remembered that his radio was still switched off and looked down for the switch. The wires had come adrift from the battery at his waist so he decided to sit down to fix it. The edge of the platform behind him had plenty of gap so he took a quick step to it, swivelled and sat heavily on its edge.
He immediately felt the wood of the platform and the sudden cracking noise instantly followed by a crunching of rubble and wood mixed with his feet slipping forward as his shoulders jerked backwards and his whole body went down. Only about a foot but the surprise as his bottom fell and then hit the collapsed planking again, jarring his spine against the pit-prop logs behind him. He was left with his knees crumpled up near his face as the angle had so suddenly changed, trying to decide if he was hurt by the experience. Trying to decide if the howling was his own, or Joe’s.
Joe rushed over, ignored Walter in his uncomfortable squatting position and knelt at the opposite corner of the now angled platform, peering into the darkness. Walter looked over and could hear Joe mumbling under the staging but it was made indistinct by a part cry, part howl from underneath the platform. Walter rearranged his feet and legs, stood up, reassured himself of no ill-effects and hurried to Joe at the other end of the platform.
He knelt beside him, lowered his head to look under the boarding as Joe was.
The noise was more intermittent, Walter recognized it now as the sound of a dog in distress. Maybe hurt, maybe trapped in the back, lower corner of the now part-collapsed platform.
“It’s me dog, she always goes under there. Eats and sleeps there if she is not sitting on me feet.”
They both listened to the dog, quieter now, calmer when Joe called out. Peering into the sloping gloom they could just see her muzzle and brief reflection from her eyes when she moved her head. But she could not move towards them. They saw her struggle a little but then stop.
“She must be stuck. You’ve got to go under and help her.” Joe grabbed Walter’s shoulder as he spoke, “I can’t go in there, I can’t. You’ve got to save her, please, please.” By this time Joe was holding on to Walter with both hands, voice pleading and almost tearful.
Walter’s shoulders sagged a little as he sighed. He was aware of his duty, he supposed, just that a dog rescue would not rank highly on the heroic scale. Also, it looked pretty mucky and weedy under there, goodness know what it would do to his uniform.
He removed Joe’s still shaking hands from his sleeves and stood up. Rather pointlessly he brushed at the knees of his trousers, “I’ll get a torch,” and walked over to his bike, his saddlebag, removed the torch and checked that it still worked then walked disconsolately back to Joe, the broken platform and his duty.
He knelt at the gap, had to lie on his stomach and crawl to get in. He had done this once or twice in training but it was even worse now. Dirt, dead weeds, cobwebs – assorted sizes – chunks of stone, paper and leaves blown in over the years. Underneath him, as he crawled with the platform above getting lower and lower, was the watery earth, mud, scraping into his uniform, belt and radio. The dog watched him, it’s face turning into a shade of ginger with green eyes as the torch flashed over it. He stopped a few feet away, just out of arms length. The dog lolled its tongue out and panted, stretched head forward a little to sniff at this odd stranger approaching.
“What’s the dog’s name?” PC Copper shouted, moving his head and thumping it on the boards above. He returned to the dog, “Come on girl, let me help.”
“Rusty! Good girl. Come Rusty! Come to Joe! Here girl!” Replied Joe.
The dog did a couple of low, short barks, more like harruffs in Walters direction and started to crawl forward. She inched forward and Walter called to Joe again, “Keep calling.” And to the dog, “Here girl, it’s all right, go to Joe.”
The dog reached Walter’s hands and started licking them; Joe called again and the dog, Rusty, stopped and looked in the direction of the voice. Walter could hear the tail wagging, “Keep calling, Joe.”
Joe, just a few feet away called out again, “Come here Rusty, come and have a cuppa, come on girl!”
Encouraged, the dog moved forward again but hesitated and stopped. The beam of the torch showed the hind leg was caught in some string or tape, he could just make out that it was wrapped round the leg, possibly the other, which would explain why the dog found it difficult to move. The beam of the torch faded to a glow. He left it on the earth and reached forward with both hands to free the dog leg. With a little yelping, wriggling and licking from the dog he felt his way to pull the tapes of material from off the dog. Part unwinding, part pulling and a lot of fumbling in the grey gloom allowed the dog to scrabble forwards, passed Walter’s prone body, towards Joe’s voice and his upturned head as he peered and called coaxingly.
As the dog crawled and bobbed her way passed Walter it still had one leg knotted into the material. He grabbed a piece at it went passed. It stayed in his hand as the dog progressed. Walter heard the cheery, relieved greeting of man for his dog and started to crawl backwards to escape the claustrophobic roof on his head. Dim torch in his left hand, feeling himself turning, crablike to get his head into the daylight first, he made a tortuous journey back. En route he collected the discards from around Rusty’s legs.
Crawling out, kneeling and looking down at his uniform, his heart really sank. He picked off the leaves trapped by his belt and looked at the accumulation of several years now staining the front of his tunic. Many shades of dust, grey and muddy smears down sleeves and front and trousers to match with especially muddied knees, right down to big scuffs on the toes of his police boots.
Joe walked back to his log-seat and shared his remaining mug of tea with a tail-wagging Rusty.
PC Walter Copper walked back to his bicycle and replaced the torch, then stuffed the remnants that had been twisted round the legs of Rusty. The reasons why she had been trapped when the platform collapsed. He had noticed the coloured materials, like a nest, at the back of the platform. It had been a safe height for the dog to snuggle into before the brick piles at the front had collapsed… Before Walter had sat on the unsafe front edge…..before his extra weight caused the crumbling support to finally give up.
As he tucked them away, Walter did not expect Rita would want the pinafore and bra returned, he certainly would not go back for the knickers but felt honour-bound to take what he had collected to the Station. He assumed the other clothes were there too but he was in no hurry to look.
At least he had an explanation, could sign off on a few minor incidents, well, thefts, he supposed. All he had to worry about now was telling it all to the Sergeant and the ladies, about their disappearing washing. And his dirty uniform and getting Rusty.
He pushed his bike to the road, stiffly mounted it and cycled off. No word to Joe who was otherwise happily occupied. Walter never noticed that the coiled cable from radio to battery was no longer there, pulled off in his adventure. Cycling slowly back down the lane he was able to appreciate the quiet of it all, the expanse of fresh air around him and the sun dappling through the branches with their few remaining autumnal leaves and nearly warming his wet knees.
see also tags Burnthorpe Copper Man