Tick Tock

I was reviewing some old case notes of a recently retired colleague, when I stumbled across the following. I don't know if this is true, or an invention of hers, but I thought it worth copying out here, as it may provide some amusement. I've taken the liberty of correcting her spelling in a few places, but the grammar I have left alone.

19th Feb 1980

Today I visited Mr Tomlinson. I feel that the events of today will live with me for a long time. So I am going into more detail than I would normally do.

He lived alone in an old workers cottage at the end of a short terrace of similar cottages. Had lived there all his life. Following a fall some months earlier, he had never regained his full mobility, and had decided that now was the time to move into the Council retirement home. The ambulance was coming to pick him up that afternoon, and he'd requested that I visit him a few hours earlier to oversee his affairs, and to determine what of his personal effects could be moved with him.

I rapped the shiny brass knocker on the front door, and prepared to wait a while. There was no front garden, the doors on these houses opened straight onto the street. I heard him shuffling to the door, and he opened it sharply and gave me a cheery grin.

"Hello, Hello. You must be Mrs Knowles, yes? Please come in , come in"

He stepped back to allow me in, those old cottages were not as roomy as the houses we have these days, and squeezing past him in that narrow hallway brought me uncomfortably close to him.

"Here, let me take your coat, cold out there eh? Straight through here, please take a seat."

He led me into the living room, off to one side of the central hallway. The beams were low, but still above our heads.

"Lived in this house near on seventy years now. Growing up I could run around under these beams. But as a young man, always banging my head. Full circle now eh? Plenty space above my head now. I'll go get us a cup of tea. I expect you want to take a look around. Most folks do with these old cottages. Look at the size of that old fireplace eh? Don't make them like that any more, used to be able to roast a cow in there. Not sure that's true mind you, but that's what they say. A pig maybe, perhaps even a calf, not an adult though. No not an adult."

His voice faded as he made his way down the hall to the kitchen. I rose from the chair and followed him.

"Come to give me a hand eh? That's kind of you. Milk? Sugar? ... Right you are, as it comes out the pot then. Don't want to burn your tongue though, best let it cool a while."

As we walked back down the hallway, I glanced into the door to the opposite room, it had once been the dining room, but was now made up to be a downstairs bedroom.

"Ah yes, since I slipped I've been sleeping down here. Don't go upstairs unless I have to. Not so easy up that steep stairway, always feel I'm going to come tumbling down. You might want to take a look up there later. Not much to see though, well apart from, well you'll find out, nothing up there I want to keep, shall we say. Wrote to both my children, neither of them wanting anything off me these days. Never even seen my kids, I mean grand kids, he he so easy to muddle them up eh, we were all young once, scampering around. My sons wife sent me some photos, fine looking young chaps they are... Yes only on my sons side, daughter never married, bit of a loner just between you and me, never really understood her myself. Can't believe everything she tells you that one, you mark my words. Moved to Scotland, about as far from here as you can get I dare say... My son? Stayed in France he did, met a young lass, and never been back to England since."

We sat back down in the chairs in the living room, and there were a few moments of grateful silence as he sipped his tea until he smacked his lips together and sighed loudly. I asked about the photo on top of the bookcase.

"Yes that's my son and his two young ones, wife not in it, guess she's the one behind the camera there. Taken more than a few years back that was, children must be grown up by now I reckon. Might have kids of their own even, you know how it is. He was stationed there towards the end of the war, missed the real fighting I'm glad to say, but he met this French girl, married her there and then, and I never saw him again... Yes real fighting I said. Great War, we had real fighting then, we all thought it was the last big war there would ever be, terrible it was, terrible. People do some bad things in a war, awful, truly awful, that's the way it is. But these politicians, short memories they have, short memories."

He paused for a breath, and I took the opportunity to ask him about his wife.

"Beautiful she was. Made your heart miss a beat, just to look at her. Day I married her, happiest man in the world I was. Young at the time, hardly more than a girl. Raised two great children she did, wonderful woman. Accident though, Alice was only ten, and George a year older, when the good Lord took her away from us. Good neighbours we had back in those days, not like the ones you get now. Gossips they are, gossips. Though I can't complain, but you do hear some stories you know. Count myself lucky I do. So yes, children were looked after, though when school was out, they were left during the day for longer than I'd have liked, but children in those days, look after them selves they could. Twelve he was when the war started. Wanted to sign up then he did. I did ask for myself, but too old they said, wanted me to stay on at the council... Yes I know, I could have moved to a bigger house, but belonged to my father this one, grown attached to it now. No longer mind you, children aren't interested. Be sold. Which is why I wanted a favour from you, you'll know what it is when I tell you I think, you're a bright young girl... Ah don't blush so, you know it's true."

I asked about the possessions he wanted to take with him.

"All boxed up. Though now you mention that photo, think I'll take that too. If there's room. I'll take Busters lead as well of course. It's a painful memory, but you need the salt to make the sugar taste all the sweeter, so our nan used to say."

I asked him about Buster.

"I was coming round to that. Best dog I ever had he was. That year, forty four it must have been, worst year of my life. Except the year Daisy passed on of course. Started with Alice falling down the stairs in January. Winter time it was, I had lots of work at the council of course, but George was on the farms and he didn't have much at that time of year. He'd start early, but usually he was home well before me. That day though, when I came home, Alice was bruised and bloody from falling down the stairs, and George was scratched up from getting attacked by a dog on the farm. Both in foul moods they were, not saying anything to each other for days, Though George spoke to me of joining up the next day. And before the month was out, he was off. He wanted Alice to go with him, but I made her stay. Now where was I, oh yes Buster was fussing all over them when we got in... No, he came with me to the office during days Buster did... Sort of Mastiff I think he was, not pure breed though had a lot of something else in there, intelligent and strong he was. Lovely dog. But yes that year got worse all right, much worse. All this talks making my throat dry I can tell you. Another cup?... Ah, right you are then."

He re-filled the pot from the kettle and swilled it around, then poured himself another cup, putting the milk in first.

"So where was I. Oh yes, Mrs Flax, she lived next door. Her husband had been killed in the first days of the war, very sad. One of eight daughters she was, which is unusual. Merchant seaman, forgotten heroes they were... No, no, her husband of course. Country would have gone to the dogs without them. Ah, of course, Buster, that's what we were talking about. Was a fair hot summer, and you know what it is like with hot weather. Time when dogs can go a bit strange. And people too, not that Alice needed any help there, think she must have missed her brother, she'd been a bit strange for a while. Not going out so much, wearing some of her mothers old clothes. But anyhow, Buster, poor old chap, he'd cut his leg open, not too bad mind you, but he had to stay at home with Alice for about a week. Must have been bored I guess, but I came home one day."

At this point he paused, he was no longer looking at me, but was gazing down into his tea.

"I was met at the door by Mrs Flax. Said there had been an accident, Alice had been hurt, not too bad, she'd been taken off to hospital for a few days to see her right. Said that Buster had attacked her. I went inside, there was blood on the floor, not much. Back in those days we had stone floor downstairs, with rugs on, and bare wood up there."

He motioned to the rooms above.

"I could see a faint trail of blood from the stairs. I went up, and there was more blood there, in the bathroom, and on the landing, there were footprints, dogs and people. Then I heard Buster whimpering from the kitchen, where Mrs Flax had tied him up. Brave woman she was, must have been terrified of him, what with him being so big and all, but she tied him up out of the way. I went in there, and he was looking up at me in that kind of sad sort of way. He knew something was up, must have realised that he had done something bad. But all I could see was the blood on the stairs. I took a hold of his collar and led him out to the back. Spade was leaning up in the porch, I took hold of it. Tied him up to the garden seat. He just sat there looking at me, frowning, you know how they do. He trusted me totally. Even when I swung that big spade back, he still trusted me. First blow, hardly more than a tap my hands were shaking so much. But I could still see that blood in my minds eye like, and my next blow hit harder. And still he just sat there, looking back at me, did not understand what he did wrong. And I just kept hitting him. Skull like a block of stone old Buster, but that spade was a solid lump of iron, made to last in those days they were. I hit and hit till he stopped whimpering, there were so many tears in my eyes, I could not see straight. Tears of rage I think, can't tell though, can't tell."

He fell silent, the cup of tea held in his two hands. Then he raised his head and seemd to gather his thoughts.

"We could do with a new pot. I'll go refill the kettle. You might want to take a look upstairs, sharp young mind like yours, take a look around."

He shuffled out to the kitchen, and I opened the door in the corner of the room that led upstairs. As he had said the stairs were steep and treacherous, and I went up them on all fours. There were three bedrooms and a bathroom leading off the landing. There were fitted carpets all round, a chair in one corner, and a grandfather clock in the other.

I looked into the bedrooms, there was nothing under the beds, and the chests of drawers contained only musty old cloths and sheets. Too obvious anyway, I thought. There was a hatchway to the roof space, but even on a chair I doubt she could have reached it. The fireplaces in the bedrooms were possible, but unlikely if she'd had any wits about her. And then it struck me.

I went back to the landing and looked more closely at the clock.

I opened the door in the front panel to expose the stationary pendulum. There was nothing in the foot-well (if that's the right word), but looking up there was a sort of shelf, before the head of the clock, at the front. I reached in and felt a lip at it's back edge. I could feel some soft cloth, and felt beyond the lip. It felt like brittle dry twigs at first, and some snapped as my hand closed on them. Twigs wrapped in thin leathery paper. I ran my hand along the shelf until my fingers found what felt like a large egg.

He was sitting back down, nursing his tea when I rejoined him. His voice was much softer than before.

"I can't climb those stairs any more. And something needs to be done. Only found it after they had all left."

I laid a hand on his knee and assured him it would all be fine.

"I don't have a whole lot more summers left in me. When..."

He paused.

"I want Busters lead next to me in the coffin. I'd like that very much." His voice had become more hoarse, "Can you do that?"

After the ambulance had taken him to the home. I looked in the shed in the garden. The spade was old, and the handle worn. As I dug that narrow trench I wondered who he had been grieving over when his hands had swung that spade.

11 August 2009 silvercoat