He preferred the night shift, it was long but it was routine. Yes, there were the drunken events outside or inside the pubs where he sometimes found himself between a couple of brawling men. By the time he got there they were usually held back by friends or regulars, protagonists likely to be restrained by a man at each arm and more embarrassed by their disability to fight due to the effect of alcohol than their restraints.
At this time of night the High Street was empty except for a few parked cars. It was after midnight. Pubs closed and the slow drinkers evicted, even from the Jolly Puritan, where he had been known to have a quick drink even after midnight. He would usually park his bike outside that pub when on his rounds. A good excuse to check in and put his back to the fire on a cold winter’s night. With a large tot of whisky in hand to warm his return to the station and signing off. Not so easy to slink around on these summer nights though. It was warmer, no excuse to stand in front of an empty grate but the real reason was the people.
Too many people still wandering the streets after midnight. Often two or three straggling in a daze and weaving, close shouldered for support away from the pubs and down the road in search of an open chip-shop. Usually a forlorn hope when even the street lights were beginning to dim.
He would have to check a couple of recessed doorways on his stroll trying not to flash his torch into the eyes of any itinerant slumped asleep. It was not often they were there but sometimes he would see the boots sticking out and would have to check. Torchlight skimming over the person, checking state of boots, trousers and often old khaki overcoat or heavy navy serge. The memory of the one man he had found like this always nudged him to check. Even after two years the glint of the medals drooping on the mans coat remained in his mind more clearly than the man himself. Finally he would flick the beam over the face hoping he would not be unsettling a corpse.
This was a summer night and the recessed doorways held only a couple seeking a little more privacy than the open pavement. They were the remnants of a party heading into the distance, mostly separating to manouever round the chain fence round the Waddle stone. Except for one who was too dazed to miss a small post and ricocheted off it into a companion. PC Copper stopped to shine his torch at the couple, swiftly moving it up their close bodies to their faces. Heads turned, eyes screwed, as the light hit them.
“Keep it decent!” He used his official tone. Moved the beam slightly from the girls’ face as she turned her head away on realising who had spoken and left it for a few seconds longer on the man. The man squinted in an attempt to see the holder of the torch and allowed Walter time to recognise he was a stranger.
“It’s the local bobby, he knows me”. Said the girl, though the words carried no further than the stranger’s ears. The policeman’s radio crackled and the central operator called him. It was just a normal situation check but Walter hated these new-fangled things with boxes that had to be strapped to his jacket and its twisted cabling that circled down to the microphone handset he had to keep pressing to talk, or was it listen. He often got it wrong, much to his officer’s annoyance but it was early days yet, he kept telling himself.
He stopped to talk, rather shout, into the handset and having to repeat himself as the signal crackled and broke its way back to the police station, some two hundred yards away. Why couldn’t it wait for just five minutes when he would be inside the ruddy building and standing next to the operator.
“Progress. It is the future. Speed of communication. Keeps us ahead of the game”. Said the inspector when he overheard PC Copper moaning to the desk sergeant.
Walter fumbled his torch back into his jacket as he juggled the switch in the handset, barking into it and striding irritatedly down the inclined pavement towards the station. All thought of the near-mating gone. As had the couple, or the girl anyway. She had pulled her dress down and straight and scittered away, off to her home in Church Lane.
The young man stayed leaning against the shop door. Shoulder scrunched, eyes closed and head tattooing a frustrated rhythm on the old glass.
PC Walter Copper, just ended his rota of night shifts, was lying in bed determined to make the most of his first rest day. He was relaxed. He had shaken the covers at the bottom of the bed and freed both feet. Moving his ankles he rotated his feet clockwise a few times and then in the opposite direction. “Exercise”, he thought, “is good for the mind”. He stopped moving, “but enough is enough”.
He had arrived home in the early shimmer of dawn, tucked his bicycle in the covered alley between house and shed. He had eaten the regulation breakfast in the station canteen before leaving so only had to undress, visit the toilet and pull the covers over his head to keep the light at bay and lessen the spouting noise of the cistern that was on the other side of the wall beside his head. He had slept well, as always.
And now, ankles refreshed, he decided to go for the tea and toast before tackling his lawn that needed mowing.
By the time he started on the grass it was early afternoon. It was still too hot really but he had promised himself an evening at the ‘Jolly Puritan’ as a reward for effort in the garden. He was a man who kept a promise, even to himself. Halfway through he had to remove his shirt as the sweat was making it cling uncomfortably to his skin. Keeping his string vest on, as you do, he proceeded to push the eight-inch cylinder machine in straightish lines up and down. People could walk past the lawn and watch his progress. Going to the park they could see him start smartly and on their homeward journey they could see him pushing bent-backed and bright pink with effort and tentative sun-burn, re-running the tramlines in a final effort to get them straight. He did not notice the girl from the previous evening hurry past, hesitate at his gate, look at him and then continue.
Finished, he quickly rolled the machine into the shed and closed the door thankfully.
Indoors, he ran water from the taps into the bowl in the sink and when it was full thrust his head into it. He scooped the water round his chin and over the back of his head and neck. Briefly cooler he stood straight and grabbed a towel to catch the bulk of the water that followed gravity with cool lines down front and back. Hair dryer but very tousled he intended to go upstairs for a shirt but was surprised by a knock on the front door. Opening it with a sense of duty he instantly regretted his lack of shirt and dignity when the young woman before him took a determined breath and spoke;
“Please don’t tell my dad you saw me there last night! I don’t care, really, but he would be everso angry and embarrassed. It wasn’t what you saw, I wouldn’t have, I didn’t even know him. Not that I care, anyway it is the seventies. You won’t tell him will you, please, please, please? It was crazy, I was crazy”.
The long speech, the rush of air, defeated the voice and it fell back into the younger voice he remembered from school. She had been a few years below him , noticed but as one of the gaggle of younger children. He had left, become a police cadet and eventually passed out and was now established back in his old town. Still young as a policeman but well recognised generally, respect for his authority however was in short supply, especially from the remnants of the old crowd he used to know. One of the hazards of returning to your home town, he had been warned.
Anyway, she was not the young girl he had vaguely remembered, she was the young woman he recognised all too vividly last night. It is not good for a policeman to blush. But then he did not look like a policeman. He stood and looked at her. Silent.
“You remember me? From before, at school?” Her turn to blush a little and lower her head slightly, briefly, before looking him in the eye, daring him with hers. He nodded.
“It’s Angel, I’m Angel. Angel Lamb. You know, remember? The vicar’s daughter.”
“Yes, from last night, I knew it was you”. He stopped speaking, wondering what he should say. They had broken no laws, well, not quite, maybe he saw them in time. Or maybe he wished he hadn’t seen them, or just her.
“You won’t tell him? You didn’t see me last night, okay?” She hugged her arms round her waist and bounced a little on the spot in anticipation of his answer. It did not help him answer smoothly. His gaze dropped and returned up to her face, her eyes.
“If you say so. For your dad’s sake.”
“Oh thank you!” She kept her voice low and the sound gushed out in a mixture of haste and relief. She tepped forward quickly, reached her arms round his neck and pulled him closer as she rose onto her toes and kissed his cheeck. As quickly, she released him, stepped away, turned and almost skipped to the low gate. She mouthed thank you as she was through the gate and pouted a kiss at him before hurrying off.
Walter closed the door. He sat and whiled away the time staring at the daily crossword before moving around, getting ready to spend the evening in the “Jolly Puritan”.
Summer nights, sunlight until well after ten. As a regular at the pub Walter was included in the lock-in. The new Juke box in the public bar blasting the old favourites through to the ‘lounge bar’ so they had no escape from alternating Beatles and Stones and Cliff Richard music. Walter revolved around bar billiards and darts and standing at the bar for a bit of respite from both.
The sad looking girl with the short, shaggy black hair sat at the table in the far corner. She was there the same night every week and stayed as late as anyone. She would chat noncommittally to any that joined her table to keep out of the way of the bums and cues and darts. Drinking lager and lime top, sometimes accepting a drink from a regular she would talk to. Walter carried his pint to her table, nodded at an empty chair and her waved hand taken as a gesture for him to sit. They sat in mutual silence for the last twenty minutes.
“Time! Gents and ladies. Ladies and gents, you’ve had your quotas, now go home to your wives and doters.”
“I wish he would stop that rubbish rhyming”, she said. “You’re a policeman arent you? Will you walk me home, please? As a policeman, that is.”
He was slightly surprised at the request, partly by itself and partly as those two sentences were the first he could remember her saying to him. “Yes, okay”. He hesitated slightly, “I can be a policeman, or a friend. Even a friendly policeman.”
“As long as you are not the Laughing Policeman.” she said. No smile, but softening of tone as, “But thanks”.
Perhaps he should have asked why, but he didn’t, just looked at her as she stared into the middle distance. The pub emptied into the street and Walter walked with the woman for the ten minutes it took to reach her house. A small red terrace part-way up the hill. The slope itself terraced by more blocks of houses trailing along the length of the hill.
They walked in almost silence. He briefly commenting on the pleasant cool of the summer night and her shorter word of agreement. They walked comfortably together, he slowing his pace to hers.
“This is me. My house. Thanks, it is kind of you. I am okay now. I just needed a little bit of company for a few minutes.” She unlocked the door, stepped inside and turned to say,
“Thanks again, see you around, probably in the pub, eh?” she smiled briefly, keeping watch on Walter as she closed the door.
Walter retraced his journey, mulling over the quiet stroll with the woman. He passed the Jolly Puritan and saw all its lights were still on. He didn’t try the door, assumed it was locked and the staff were clearing up. Saw nothing as he glanced into the window except the empty room and tables. And so he continued his stroll home and to bed. Easy day tomorrow, shift starts at 2p.m.
Strolling into the station in the early afternoon was always an easy shift in Burnthorpe. Anything that happened was either late at night or early in the morning. Anything that set the station buzzing, that is; the usual robberies or accidents, all the various public casualties that involved the police. His beat for the afternoon was to be a gentle stroll round the houses and the shops with the odd greeting and wave or short chat with shopkeepers. Time at the station for a break and then a second stroll round his area which was a repeat, ending with an hour back at a station desk and the hand-over briefing for the evening shift. It was only at this last meeting that PC Copper heard the report that a young man had been found in a shop doorway in the early hours of the morning. Heard that the man had probably died from vomit after too much drink. Finally that he had not been identified. Apart from the body being discovered in the same shop doorway as Walter’s discovery a couple of years ago there was no other apparent interest.
So, an uneventful day that progressed into an evening that held no excitement either. Some evenings he could watch the likes of Dixon of Dock Green, which usually had a boring storyline these days but he was quite taken by the gritty stories of ‘Z Cars’. Set in an imaginary area of Liverpool. With it’s thick accents and no nonsense coppers it was a world he could almost be part of. Except in Burnthope very little actually happened and he only had a bicycle, they had snazzy Ford Anglias. Only top-brass had the cars when they visited, or the rarely visiting detectives. Black Jags for the brass and Humbers for the ‘tecs if they could get one from the pool at the city station.
The evening, after the meal of carrots, potatoes and ham, was spent ironing the heavy blue shirt for the following day and a stiff brushing of his serge uniform to clear the street-dust.
Country-music on the radio, switch to the BBC television news as dusk approached and the hour before bed taken up with a last mug of tea and the crossword of the day.
At the station briefing they were each given a photo. A grainy morgue photo whose overhead lights, pre autopsy, lit the face to an even more deathly pallor.
“He had no wallet or identity papers. No recognition to date, the sergeant’s getting the files checked but it could take days. Ask around, Just in case he’s been about.” Said the duty-sergeant. “Probably died in his sick, serve him right, poor bloke.”
They tucked the photo into their notebooks and into their top pockets. Walter’s beat for the day was in the New town and as he cycled to the side-gate of the shop where the police had arrangements to park their bikes he tried to remember where he had seen that face. Quiffed-up hair, just like that bloke on Z-Cars, what’s ‘is name!
And another few hours spent pleasantly making conversation with shopkeeper and shoppers. A few directions for toilets, even some cheeky requests for the time. With those he was uncommonly polite, sometimes to the disappointment of the asking child. He ably directed cyclists off the pathways with the gruff additional “Dont let me catch you doing it again!” They always did, he always did.
He had shown the photograph to the owners of the various shops and cafes, the man’s face getting more creased, older, every time. No-one recognised him though the woman behind the counter at the Coffee-Cafe said he looked like one of the lads who sat around in the evenings.
And the day plodded on.
End of shift, at the station de-briefing, they were informed that the young man had a stomach full of beer, little food and many part dissolved tablets. Apparently they could be this LSD stuff they go on about. Big thing in London and Liverpool but can’t see it gettin’ to these parts. The suggestion being that it was accidental mixing of too many ‘party-pills’ with the alcohol. Suicide was most unlikely so the coroner’s report would be Accidental Death. “Just have to find a name for the lad and inform relatives”.
Off-shift and out of uniform he decided he needed a couple of pints of beer, maybe a game of darts or better still, dominoes.
The pub was quiet. The vicar sitting on a plump, red-cushioned stool at the bar cradling his pewter tankard they kept behind the bar for him. He often called in after a service or funeral, keeping conversation or consolation if at a Wake. “Adding to local colour and keeping up his service-.drinking”, he would have said to any querying soul. He was referring to his war-time service and his memories of Arnhem but kept that part to himself.
Walter kept his promise and never mentioned his meeting the vicar’s daughter, Angel, but he did ask how she was. “She was fine, probably in a huddle with her girlfriends in town. She came home a bit giddy and seemingly drunk a few nights ago but had blamed food poisoning at the new kebab place in town. She should stick to that coffee-bar they all go to. Mind you they have the juke box so loud they cant hear a thing. They will go deaf, you mark my words”.
Their conversation to’ed and fro’ed as these words came out. The barman, barrel shaped and apparently not much taller than the counter pulled a slow pint of mild and bitter for Walter. He put the straight glass to the open hand, picked up the coins and with cloth in other hand wiped the overflowed drips from the polished surface.
“Thanks Eddy”, said Walter mid-gulp.
The bar stayed quiet so after a second pint Walter abandoned ideas of dominoes and strolled towards the cafes in the new part of town. Automatically looking into the recessed doorways as he went. Strolled past the Waddle-stone and the kids pushing against their bed-times by sitting blatantly on the stone itself and carefully swinging on the chains around it. He was not in uniform and not in a growling mood so he let it pass.
There she was, as he expected, sitting at one of the tables, squeezed between two lads on one bench seat with two young woman on the one opposite. The table in front of them had several tall glass mugs spilling over with coffee-stained froth and other dregged cups and saucers. Small spoons were carefully criss-crossed like smocking along one table edge. Angel looked a picture, but a tired picture, he thought.
Walter Copper took a breath and entered the cafe. He wasn’t much older than the customers but he felt out of age, out of depth. The noise was battering at first but once past the speakers blasting out the Rolling Stones he was able to hear himself think and reaching the woman tending the steaming and gasping Espresso machine found he could talk too.
When she turned he recognised her as the young woman he had escorted home. They both offered each a hesitant ‘hello’ unsure how to continue. He broke the pause by unfolding the young man’s photo and showing it to her.
Yes, she recognised him. He was new but had become regular. He would often stay late drinking coffee. He was popular, chatting to lots of people throughout the time he stayed. Maybe he was too popular. No, she didn’t like him. He sort of scared her. Maybe he was giving out drugs, some of the girls got silly, like drunk.
She squeezed out a coffee and passed him the frothing glass mug and long handled spoon. He scooped out the froth as she spoke softly to him.
“And Angel? Was she involved?”
“The honey girl? No. She was one that got silly-dizzy the last night he was in. He acted all concerned and had to haul her out. She was upset, sounded a bit over giggly at the same time. She didn’t know what was happening but her friends reckoned he was alright, they didn’t mind.”
He looked over to Angel and back to his coffee. Sipped through the froth and looked for more information. She continued quickly, quietly, while tidying cups on the black and chrome machine. “It was closing time anyway. I cleared everyone out.” She spotted his quizzical look. “The’re a tame lot really, he was the slow one”. She nodded to the photo. He picked it up and slid it, with yet another crease, into a pocket.
“Anyway, I tried to follow them. I know she’s the vicar’s daughter but lost sight of them. I assume she got home okay. That was it. Day off next day so I didn’t see her. End of the day I was in the pub.”
“You looked unhappy.”
“I was. I was also a bit worried by that man in case he knew I followed them. I didn’t like his eyes. He was all chirpy with the customers but he looked at me with flint in his eyes. That was why I asked you to see me home. I was just too scared to leave alone.”
“They all look happy enough”, he said looking around the room at the tables and people. Angel saw him looking and gave him a wave, then nudged the young man trying to wrestle an arm around her. Walter looked away.
“Just as noisy but not so jumpy. Me included”. She said. A group came in and lounged on the counter shouting and changing their orders before settling and sharing their coins; half crowns, shillings and pennies to reach the total. “Thanks, Mad”, said one.
‘Mad?’ he queried.
“Maddy for short or Madelie if you want formal.”
“Thanks Madelie, Maddy. See you in the pub?” She waved her hand noncommittally as she sorted the coffee orders. He accepted the hint and left the Coffee-Cafe.
Sunday, in church, the vicar briefly mentioned the talking point of the week: “I have to mention the sad fate of, as yet, a stranger, a few days ago. Who knows what he might have done had he lived a full life. But life might be compared to walking the plank, or a tightrope. There is a hand guiding and supporting, ensuring you don’t fall. Maybe this young man had lost his footing, lost his support and fell out of life. Yet there will always be a hand on your shoulder, even in death, as there was with this young man.”……………
‘Quiet tonight landlord?’
‘Padre…..’. Quiet agreement from the publican as he stretched up to reach the vicar’s tankard then filled it from the bitter pump. They said no more. One sipped at the bitter while the other polished the dried glasses ready for custom.
They had no need for chatter, it had been worked out during the war and settled into a quiet consideration when they found themselves neighbours again. How Eddy, short and tubby, even those years ago, managed to get himself dropped into Arnhem no one dared ask at the time. And now, nearly thirty years later it would never be a topic of conversation. Both men had met in the cellars and as padre and sergeant fought their way through the rubble, eventually to be trailed through the gutted streets towards a POW camp.
“Back to her usual annoying self, bless her”.
They did not speak of the thumping on the door a few nights ago and the one stern call of his name, “Eddy. Sergaent!” Or the crashing of the young man onto the tiled floor through the half-opened door.
“He needs a pint before he leaves town. Bitter seems appropriate, think of it as a gift from an angel”. The vicar picked the young man up by the scruff of his neck and shoved him into a chair. “Empty your pockets”.
The young man, slicked hair now collapsed round his ears automatically started rifling his jacket pocket and dropped contents on the table before starting back to another pocket. He was breathing heavily, sweating profusely.
Seeing the pile of tablets that had appeared with a box of matches: “That’ll do. Keep your hands on the table”. The vicar rested a heavy palm on the youth’s shoulder and he felt the shoulder cringe.
“There’s your drink before you go. Drink it quick and you are free to leave.”
The hapless man picked up the glass but before it reached his lips he felt the claw-like squeeze on his shoulder. “Remember to take your tablets”, then; “Another pint, landlord, help the sweeties down.”
A second pint appeared. He scrabbled at the tablets, more scared of the vice by his neck than the small blocks of powder. Tablets gone, second pint downed, partly down his striped shirt.
“Well done. So nice to meet you”, as he was yanked out of the chair. At the doorstep the voice in the young man’s ear whispered in menace, “If you come back to Burnthorpe you won’t leave”.
The shove propelled him yards across the road. He heard the heavy door slam behind him. In the street he turned, looking up to find where he was. The creaking sign above attracted his attention. He saw a man, stiff in black with a white lacey bib leering down towards him. The Bible in the Puritan’s hands flapped open and fell toward his feet. It fell closed, as black and solid as a drain-cover by his toes. The young man bent to pick up the dropped Bible and as his fingers touched the cover it heaved and curved, smoothed and glossed and scurried away with flickering cockroach legs, slithering through the lit slit under the heavy black door.
Confused, half-henching, the bitter and bile filling his throat and mouth as he lurched down the slight incline. The lights threw themselves at him then went black, their stalks bending down to him and tripping him like giant brambles. From each side of the street the large eyes of glass blinked at him. Irises darkening and enlarging, enveloping him as he bumped into the harsh convex corneas. They closed in round him as he walked blindly into corners without escape. And he was tired. The decorated marble tiling ate into his feet, laminated shins, melted knees and the acrid bitterness filled his mouth, his chest, his eyes. The doorway held him as a safe, not as warm as the soldier before him but tighter.
photo and text copyright j.Johnson Smith
See also tags: Madeline Carew, The Jolly Puritan, Copper Man,