As Robert turned his car into the garage in Sin Lane and came to a halt, Stanley, who was shrugging off his overalls outside the office door, glanced at his face and said: “Down the drain again?”
“It isn’t a bet,” Robert said, “it’s human nature.”
“You start to be sorry about human nature and you won’t have time for anything else. You been trying to reform someone?”
“No, I’ve been trying to get someone to take some paint off a wall.”
“Oh, work!” Stanley’s tone indicated that even to expect someone to do a job of work these days was being optimistic to the point of folly.
“I’ve been trying to get someone to wipe a slogan off the walls of The Franchise, but everyone is extraordinarily busy all of a sudden.”
Stanley stopped his wriggling. “A slogan,” he said. “What kind of slogan?” And Bill, hearing the exchange, oozed himself through the narrow office door to listen.
Robert told them. “In best quality white paint, so the policeman on the beat assures me.”
Bill whistled. Stanley said nothing; he was standing with his overalls shrugged down to his waist and concertinaed about his legs.
“Who’ve you tried?” Bill asked.
Robert told them. “None of them can do anything tonight, and tomorrow morning, it seems, all their men are going out early on important jobs.”
“It’s not to be believed,” Bill said. “Don’t tell me they’re afraid of reprisals!”
“No, to do them justice I don’t think it’s that. I think, although they would never say so to me, that they think those women at The Franchise deserve it.” There was silence for a moment.
“When I was in the Signals,” Stanley said, beginning in a leisurely fashion to pull up his overalls and get into the top half again, “I was given a free tour of Italy. Nearly a year it took. And I escaped the malaria, and the Ities, and the Partisans, and the Yank transport, and most of the other little nuisances. But I got a phobia. I took a great dislike to slogans on walls.”
“What’ll we get it off with?” Bill asked.
“What’s the good of owning the best equipped and most modern garage in Milford if we haven’t something to take off a spot of paint?” Stanley said, zipping up his front.
“Will you really try to do something about it?” Robert asked, surprised and pleased.
Bill smiled his slow expansive smile. “The Signals, the R.E.M.E. and a couple of brooms. What more do you want?” he said.
“Bless you,” Robert said. “Bless you both. I have only one ambition tonight; to get that slogan off the wall before breakfast tomorrow. I’ll come along and help.”
“Not in that Savile Row suit, you won’t,” Stanley said. “And we haven’t a spare suit of ——”
“I’ll get something old on and come out after you.”
“Look,” Stanley said patiently, “we don’t need any help for a little job like that. If we did we’d take Harry.” Harry was the garage boy. “You haven’t eaten yet and we have, and I’ve heard it said that Miss Bennet doesn’t like her good meals spoiled. I suppose you don’t mind if the wall looks smeary? We’re just good-intentioned garage hands, not decorators.”
The shops were shut as he walked down the High Street to his home at Number 10, and he looked at the place as a stranger walking through on a Sunday might. He had been so far from Milford during his day in Larborough that he felt that he had been away for years. The comfortable quiet of Number 10 — so different from the dead silence of The Franchise — welcomed and soothed him. A faint smell of roasting apples escaped from the kitchen. The firelight flickered on the wall of the sitting-room, seen through its half-open door. Warmth and security and comfort rose up in a gentle tide and lapped over him.
Guilty at being the owner of this waiting peace, he picked up the telephone to talk to Marion.
“Oh, you! How nice,” she said, when at last he had persuaded the Post Office that his intentions were honourable; and the warmth in her voice catching him unawares — his mind being still on white paint — caught him under the heart and left him breathless for a moment. “I’m so glad. I was wondering how we were going to talk to you; but I might have known that you would manage it. I suppose you just say you’re Robert Blair and the Post Office gives you the freedom of the place.”
How like her, he thought. The genuine gratitude of “I might have known that you would manage”; and then the faint amusement in the sentence that followed.
“I suppose you’ve seen our wall decoration?”
Robert said yes, but that no one ever would again, because by the time the sun rose it would have gone.
“The two men who own my garage have decided to obliterate it tonight.”
“But — could seven maids with seven mops ——?”
“I don’t know; but if Stanley and Bill have set their minds on it, obliterated it will be. They were brought up in a school that doesn’t tolerate frustrations.”
“What school is that?”
“The British Army. And I have more good news for you: I have established the fact that X exists. She had tea with him one day. Picked him up at the Midland, in the lounge.”
“Picked him up? But she is just a child, and so —— Oh, well, she told that story, of course. After that anything is possible. How did you find out that?”
He told her.
“You’ve had a bad day at The Franchise, haven’t you,” he said, when he had finished the saga of the coffee shops.
“Yes, I feel dirty all over. What was worse than the audience and the wall was the post. The postman gave it to the police to take in. It is not often that the police can be accused of disseminating obscene literature.”
“Yes, I imagine it must have been pretty bad. That was only to be expected.”
“Well, we have so few letters that we have decided that in future we shall burn everything without opening them, unless we recognise the writing. So don’t use typescript if you write to us.”
“But do you know my handwriting?”
“Oh, yes, you wrote us a note, you remember. The one Nevil brought that afternoon. Nice handwriting.”
“Have you seen Nevil today?”
“No, but one of the letters was from him. At least, it wasn’t a letter.”
“A document of some kind?”
“No, a poem.”
“Oh. Did you understand it?”
“No, but it made quite a nice sound.”
“So do bicycle bells.”
He thought she laughed a little. “It is nice to have poems made to one’s eyebrows,” she said. “But still nicer to have one’s wall made clean. I do thank you for that — you and what’s-their-names — Bill and Stanley. If you want to be very kind perhaps you would bring or send us some food tomorrow?”
“Food!” he said, horrified that he had not thought of that before; that was what happened when you lived a life where Aunt Lin put everything down in front of you, all but put the stuff in your mouth; you lost your capacity for imagination. “Yes, of course. I forgot that you would not be able to shop.”
“It isn’t only that. The grocer’s van that calls on Monday didn’t come today. Or perhaps,” she added hastily, “it came and just couldn’t call our attention. Anyhow, we should be so grateful for some things. Have you got a pencil there?”
She gave him a list of things, and then asked: “We didn’t see today’s Ack–Emma. Was there anything about us?”
“Some letters on the correspondence page, that is all.”
“All anti, I suppose.”
“I’m afraid so. I shall bring a copy out tomorrow morning when I bring the groceries, and you can see it for yourselves.”
“I’m afraid we are taking up a great deal of your time.”
“This has become a personal matter with me,” he said.
“Personal?” She sounded doubtful.
“The one ambition of my life is to discredit Betty Kane.”
“Oh; oh, I see.” Her voice sounded half relieved, half — could it be? — disappointed. “Well, we shall look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”
But she was to see him long before that.
He went to bed early, but lay long awake; rehearsing a telephone conversation that he planned to have with Kevin Macdermott; considering different approaches to the problem of X; wondering if Marion was asleep, in that silent old house, or lying awake listening for sounds.
His bedroom was over the street, and about midnight he heard a car drive up and stop, and presently through the open window he heard Bill’s cautious call; not much more than a throaty whisper. “Mr. Blair! Hey, Mr. Blair!”
He was at the window almost before the second utterance of his name.
“Thank goodness,” whispered Bill. “I was afraid the light might be Miss Bennet’s.”
“No, she sleeps at the back. What is it?”
“There’s trouble at The Franchise. I’ve got to go for the police because the wire is cut. But I thought you’d want to be called, so I——”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Hooligans. I’ll come in for you on my way back. In about four minutes.”
“Is Stanley with them?” Robert asked, as Bill’s great bulk merged with the car again.
“Yes, Stan’s having his head bound up. Back in a minute.” And the car fled away up the dark silent High Street.
Before Robert had got his clothes on he heard a soft “ssshush” go past his window, and realised that the police were already on their way. No screaming sirens in the night, no roaring exhausts; with no more sound than a summer wind makes among the leaves the Law was going about its business. As he opened the front door, cautiously so as not to wake Aunt Lin (nothing but the last trump was likely to wake Christina) Bill brought his car to a standstill at the pavement.
“Now tell me,” Robert said, as they moved away.
“Well, we finished that little job by the light of the headlamps — not very professional, it isn’t, but a lot better than it was when we got there — and then we switched off the heads, and began to put away our things. Sort of leisurely like; there was no hurry and it was a nice night. We’d just lit a cigarette and were thinking of pushing off when there was a crash of glass from the house. No one had got in our side while we were there, so we knew it must be round the sides or the back. Stan reached into the car and took out his torch — mine was lying on the seat because we’d been using it — and said: ‘You go round that way and I’ll go the other and we’ll nip them between us.’”
“Can you get round?”
“Well, it was no end of a business. It’s hedge up to the wall end. I wouldn’t like to have done it in ordinary clothes, but in overalls you just push hard and hope for the best. It’s all right for Stan; he’s slim. But short of lying on the hedge till it falls down there’s no way through for me. Anyhow we got through, one on each side, and through the one at the back corners, and met in the middle of the back without seeing a soul. Then we heard more crashing of glass, and realised that they were making a night of it. Stan said: ‘Hoist me up, and I’ll give you a hand after me.’ Well, a hand would be no good to me, but it happens that the field level at the back comes fairly high up the wall — in fact I think it was probably cut away to build the wall — so that we got over fairly easily. Stan said had I anything to hit with besides my torch and I said yes, I had a spanner. Stan said: ‘Forget your bloody spanner and use your ham fist; it’s bigger.’”
“What was he going to use?”
“The old rugby tackle, so he said. Stan used to be quite a good stand-off half. Anyhow we went on in the dark towards the sound of the crashing glass. It seemed as if they were just having a breaking tour round the house. We caught up with them near the front corner again, and switched on our torches. I think there were seven of them. Far more than we had expected, anyhow. We switched off at once, before they could see that we were only two, and grabbed the nearest. Stan said: ‘You take that one, sergeant,’ and I thought at the time he was giving me my rank out of old habit, but I realise now he was bluffing them we were police. Anyhow some of them beat it, because though there was a mix-up there couldn’t have been anything like seven of them in it. Then, quite suddenly it seemed, there was quiet — we’d been making a lot of noise — and I realised that we were letting them get away, and Stan said from somewhere on the ground: ‘Grab one, Bill, before they get over the wall!’ And I went after them with my torch on. The last of them was just being helped over, and I grabbed his legs and hung on. But he kicked like a mule, and what with the torch in my hand he slipped from my hands like a trout and was over before I could grab him again. That finished me, because from inside that wall at the back is even higher than it is at the front of the house. So I went back to Stan. He was still sitting on the ground. Someone had hit him a wallop over the head with what he said was a bottle and he was looking very cheap. And then Miss Sharpe came out to the top of the front steps, and said was someone hurt? She could see us in the torchlight. So we got Stan in — the old lady was there and the house was lit by this time — and I went to the phone, but Miss Sharpe said: ‘That’s no use. It’s dead. We tried to call the police when they first arrived.’ So I said I’d go and fetch them. And I said I’d better fetch you too. But Miss Sharpe said no, you’d had a very hard day and I wasn’t to disturb you. But I thought you ought to be in on it.”
“Quite right, Bill, I ought.”
The gate was wide open as they drew up, the police car at the door, most of the front rooms lit, and the curtains waving gently in the night wind at the wrecked windows. In the drawing-room — which the Sharpes evidently used as a living-room — Stanley was having a cut above his eyebrow attended to by Marion, a sergeant of police was taking notes, and his henchman was laying out exhibits. The exhibits seemed to consist of half bricks, bottles, and pieces of paper with writing on them.
“Oh, Bill, I told you not to,” Marion said as she looked up and saw Robert.
Robert noted how efficiently she was dealing with Stanley’s injury; the woman who found cooking beyond her. He greeted the sergeant and bent to look at the exhibits. There was a large array of missiles but only four messages; which read, respectively: “Get out!” “Get out or we’ll make you!” “Foreign bitches!” and “This is only a sample!”
“Well, we’ve collected them all, I think,” the sergeant said. “Now we’ll go and search the garden for footprints or whatever clues there may be.” He glanced professionally at the soles that Bill and Stanley held up at his request, and went out with his aide to the garden, as Mrs. Sharpe came in with a steaming jug and cups.
“Ah, Mr. Blair,” she said. “You still find us stimulating?”
She was fully dressed — in contrast to Marion who was looking quite human and un-Joan-of-Arc in an old dressing-gown — and apparently unmoved by these proceedings, and he wondered what kind of occasion would find Mrs. Sharpe at a disadvantage.
Bill appeared with sticks from the kitchen and lighted the dead fire, Mrs. Sharpe poured the hot liquid — it was coffee and Robert refused it, having seen enough coffee lately to lost interest in it — and the colour began to come back to Stan’s face. By the time the policemen came back from the garden the room had acquired a family-party air, in spite of the waving curtains and the non-existent windows. Neither Stanley nor Bill, Robert noticed, appeared to find the Sharpes odd or difficult; on the contrary they seemed relaxed and at home. Perhaps it was that the Sharpes took them for granted; accepting this invasion of strangers as if it were an every-day occurrence. Anyhow, Bill came and went on his ploys as if he had lived in the house for years; and Stanley put out his cup for a second helping without waiting to be asked. Involuntarily, Robert thought that Aunt Lin in their place would have been kind and fussy and they would have sat on the edge of the chairs and remembered their dirty overalls.
Perhaps it was the same taking-for-granted that had attracted Nevil.
“Do you plan to stay on here, ma’am?” the sergeant asked as they came in again.
“Certainly,” Mrs. Sharpe said, pouring coffee for them.
“No,” Robert said. “You mustn’t, you really must not. I’ll find you a quiet hotel in Larborough, where ——”
“I never heard anything more absurd. Of course we are going to stay here. What do a few broken windows matter?”
“It may not stop at broken windows,” the sergeant said. “And you’re a great responsibility to us as long as you are here; a responsibility we haven’t really got the force to deal with.”
“I’m truly sorry we are a nuisance to you, sergeant. We wouldn’t have bricks flung at our windows if we could help it, believe me. But this is our home, and here we are staying. Quite apart from any question of ethics, how much of our home would be left to come back to if it was left empty? I take it if you are too short of men to guard human beings, you certainly have no men to guard empty property?”
The sergeant looked slightly abashed, as people so often did when Mrs. Sharpe dealt with them. “Well, there is that, ma’am,” he acknowledged, with reluctance.
“And that, I think, disposes of any question of our leaving The Franchise. Sugar, sergeant?”
Robert returned to the subject when the police had taken their departure, and Bill had fetched a brush and shovel from the kitchen and was sweeping up the broken glass in room after room. Again he urged the wisdom of a hotel in Larborough, but neither his emotion nor his common sense was behind the words. He would not have gone if he had been in the Sharpes’ place, and he could not expect them to; and in addition he acknowledged the wisdom of Mrs. Sharpe’s view about the fate of the house left empty.
“What you want is a lodger,” said Stanley, who had been refused permission to sweep up glass because he was classed as walking-wounded. “A lodger with a pistol. What d’you say I come and sleep here of nights? No meals, just sleeping night watchman. They all sleep anyhow, night watchmen do.”
It was evident by their expressions that both the Sharpes appreciated the fact that this was an open declaration of allegiance in what amounted to a local war; but they did not embarrass him with thanks.
“Haven’t you got a wife?” Marion asked.
“Not of my own,” Stanley said demurely.
“Your wife — if you had one — might support your sleeping here,” Mrs. Sharpe pointed out, “but I doubt if your business would, Mr. — er — Mr. Peters.”
“I imagine that if your customers found that you had become night watchman at The Franchise they would take their custom elsewhere.”
“Not them,” Stanley said comfortably. “There’s nowhere else to take it. Lynch is drunk five nights out of seven, and Biggins wouldn’t know how to put on a bicycle chain. Anyhow, I don’t let my customers tell me what I do in my spare time.”
And when Bill returned, he backed Stanley up. Bill was a much married man and it was not contemplated that he would ever sleep anywhere except at home. But that Stanley should sleep at The Franchise seemed to both of them a natural solution of the problem.
Robert was mightily relieved.
“Well,” Marion said, “if you are going to be our guest at nights you might as well begin now. I am sure that head feels like a very painful turnip. I’ll go and make up a bed. Do you prefer a south view?”
“Yes,” said Stanley gravely. “Well away from kitchen and wireless noises.”
“I’ll do what I can.”
It was arranged that Bill should slip a note into the door of Stanley’s lodgings to say that he would be in for lunch as usual. “She won’t worry about me,” Stanley said, referring to his landlady. “I’ve been out for nights before now.” He caught Marion’s eye, and added: “Ferrying cars for customers; you can do it in half the time at night.”
They tacked down the curtains in all the ground-floor rooms to provide some protection for their contents if it rained before morning, and Robert promised to get glaziers out at the earliest possible moment. Deciding privately to go to a Larborough firm, and not risk another series of polite rebuffs in Milford.
“And I shall also do something about a key for the gate, so that I can have a duplicate,” he said as Marion came out with them to bar the gate, “and save you from being gate-keeper as well as everything else.”
She put out her hand, to Bill first. “I shall never forget what you three have done for us. When I remember tonight it won’t be these clods that I shall remember,” she tilted her head to the windowless house, “but you three.”
“Those clods were local, I suppose you know,” Bill said as they drove home through the quiet spring night.
“Yes,” Robert agreed. “I realised that. They had no car, for one thing. And ‘Foreign bitches!’ smells of the conservative country, just as ‘Fascists!’ smells of the progressive town.”
Bill said some things about progress.
“I was wrong to let myself be persuaded yesterday evening. The man on the beat was so sure that ‘everyone would go home when it grew dark’ that I let myself believe it. But I should have remembered a warning I got about witch-hunts.”
Bill was not listening. “It’s a funny thing how unsafe you feel in a house without windows,” he said. “Take a house with the back blown clean off, and not a door that will shut; you can live quite happily in a front room provided it still has windows. But without windows even a whole undamaged house feels unsafe.”
Which was not an observation that provided Robert with any comfort.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01