Neighbour introducing new movee Mr. Handslip into neighbourhood:
“On your other side is Mrs. Egremont, a widow. A very nice lady, Philippa is marvellous, the children are OK, most of them.” with a quickening.
“How many got ?” startled.
“Four. Paul’s the oldest, he’s going in the Army when older. Not the sort of life I’d choose, but it’s a good thing we’re not all alike, isn’t it ? two girls, Ysobelle and Nancy, and… the youngest, James.” A stilted note modulated his enthusiasm, unnoted by the questioner.
“Any of them noisy ?”
“They won’t be any trouble at all.” Eagerly, “The girls are very pretty, and although they could be boisterous and cause difficulties, they don’t. The oldest lad is square strong affable, very decent young man.”
“And the younger ?”
“As I said Paul’s going into the Army, which I think such a waste.” Mr. Pigg was by way of being a pacifist, which the two boys had always respected with the great tolerance of which they were both very proud. “He really could do anything, very brilliant mind indeed.” respectfully, “And unassuming with it. You always feel he’s working out formulæ with a part of his mind while talking easily to one…”
“And the other ?” Handslip enquired bluntly. Mr. Pigg nearly cringed.
“Um, Jamie. Well, he’s different.”
“You mean, er, mentally disturbed ?” with a faint shyness intruding into the brusqueness of the bald enquiry.
“Good God no ! And you’d better not ever hint of such a thing. I doubt if he’d care a rush,” bitterly, “but any of the others, let alone his dear mama, would be very offended if anyone considered such a thing. No, he’s normal enough, and bright enough, even if he doesn’t shine at school from all I hear.”
He sighed, Philippa had confided at length enough times to weary him with the subject; but having done badly himself when young he was sufficently sceptical to wonder if schooling was as important as it was cracked up to be. Conversely he respected brilliance, and was anxious to get back to Paul’s mental prowess. In fact he had long decided never to initiate comment upon, or prolong discussion upon, James Egremont.
“Well, what’s wrong with him ?” bluntly
Pigg looked around.
“Jamie,” picking his words, “is not someone to annoy; or complain about; or piss off. Do not criticise any of the family where he can hear you. He has a strong family feeling. I said the others are no trouble: one reason is that they… continue, upon the lines he lays down. If any person confronts his feelings, or does something he construes as unpleasant, things sometimes happen.” Delicately.
“You mean he’s one of these violent youths ? Some kind of yob ?” wondering what sort of brute was going to appear.
Pigg was shocked and amused. “He’s only 11 or 12 ! I forget which; and weak with it. He’s as pretty as the girls in fact. I guess he’s bullied at school: but that’s there: in his patch, it’s different. As say, an old-fashioned squire visiting London might be vulnerable in the great world, but master of his own domain; which was one reason they usually preferred to cultivate their own gardens. With experience he may be able to grow and handle parts of the great world. I hope not. Very courteous. They all are: but him the most. He’s the hidden patriarch of a patriarchal clan. They do what he directs with only half knowing the fact.”
“You know we have an excellent Guy Fawkes Night and they all used to come. At least when it was the parents and the two older kids. Then the year before Mr. Egremont died that kid, he was very small, took against it — wasn’t scared by the bangs; some bloody nonsense about not liking the Guy being burnt: he knew it was just a, a lay-figure, not real: but he still hated the idea. Now you or I would have left him at home with a baby-sitter, but they’ve never come since.
I can’t imagine how anyone would listen to a bloody toddler, Philippa, well sometimes I reckoned she was weak-minded or something: I mean, yes well now, if he was my child, I’d probably do precisely what he said; life would be simpler that way, and he’s the sort of kid who would be right most of the time: but back then… he was so small. We thought well, she’s just lost a husband, that’s why not: but the next year they wouldn’t come. Asked her why not: ‘Jamie says it’s wrong to pretend to burn people, and you know, I think he’s right.’ Look, he… he wasn’t dominant back then, even in that weird family; he is now: back then he’d just argued at them. I’d have told him to take a running jump; some fucking small kid talking back at me. Pity that because Christian and Philippa were always generous about joining in village stuff.”
“So does one have to show him one’s friendly ?” uneasily.
“What’s to prove ? Just be nice to him and don’t say anything to make his mother unhappy.”
“About him ?”
“No.” He laughed at the mistake. “Not about him: about anything. What I meant was try never to do aught that doesn’t conduce to Philippa’s happiness in life. Mrs. Hutchinson, who is separated from her own husband, had a nervous breakdown and moved away a year ago. She’d been sniping at Philippa in the Mother’s Union. Apparently someone posted her phone number as emergency counsellor for marital breakdowns; a 24 Hour Plumbing consultant; and Police Liaison Officer for the local Police Authority, specialising in all reports from concerned victims for Follow-Up Action. I remember that,” he continued reflectively, “since it never stopped after she denied the post in the local rag, and the police, confused themselves since half the time they’ve no idea what further idiocy the Home Office has shoved at them, not only didn’t deny anything, they even referred a few people to her. That was actually the least annoying thing that happened to her. Both boys have an unpleasant sense of humour. Unlike Paul he acts on it.”
“As I said they’re all polite; each will hold a conversation nicely if you stop them and talk. The boys chat about guns a bit too much — the mechanics,” hastily, “no fascination with actually using them at all — but then most lads think about that sort of thing. I did, expect you did. Paul will grow out of it and join the army. James won’t grow out of it, but I daresay he won’t ever bother to shoot a gun.
“Neither ever cracked even the hint of a smile at my name or modulated their intonation in any way; and believe me, when your name is Pigg, you certainly get even a hint if people do. You look out for it.”
“Paul’s reckless: he’ll always add the exact amount of yeast. The other, well, he’s cautious: he’d put in a bit too much. Jamie’s idea of a hint is a car-bomb. Paul has pointed out he has no idea of minimum force. In attack too much rather than just right. Double or treble strength in building work. Won’t fall down in five hundred years, but wasteful. He told me there were no definite maxims in war, a fluid business.”
“OK, the boy’s a terror, but how come people stand that sort of thing ?”
Mr. Pigg looked at him pityingly. Most of the time no proof, plus he is winning enough when you do things right. ‘Right’ being how he assesses you should behave.
“How do you know it’s him then ?” naturally wondering if it was just rumour, possibly started by the boy himself to gain a reputation. He expressed this diffidently
Pigg breathed deeply: “You don’t want that sort of reputation. Not a roisterous cavalier but the quiet kind of kingsman who would suddenly hang half a dozen villagers then torch their homesteads because their favorite mare was stolen probably drinking up deep quietly the while. Anyway you wouldn’t consider it rumour if you found eight dead rats hidden about your home.”
Handslip looked surprised and confessed this had never entered his household oeconomy.
Pigg explained: “Gutherington, someone who was quite a friend of the family. Discovered a small but vibrant colony of rats were camping out in the back alley, on a piece of land which, to be truthful, is not claimed by anyone, just a few yards square, anyway it’s a tip. So he got an airgun and a couple of friends with airguns, and spent a few hours acting out a massacre of red injuns. The little blighter didn’t react in any way when they were told, Nancy most upset and screaming, but he seemed uninterested. Not even mentioning that he had been feeding the fucking pests and adopted them as friends. Three weeks later, after some extremely interesting smells had manifested in the Gutherington domain, they began the painful discovery of a deceased rat; and then another; and the smell not diminishing each day, another, until finally after paying sanitation people to inspect the house, the grand total of eight had been found: all tucked away in the most unlikely places. It being another week before the last came to light, I understand that one was really not at all nice. It was quite a warm May.”
“If he’d kept the existence of the rat family secret for their own safety, he’s quite prepared to lie about his system of revenge, so it’s no use tackling him at all. But simple logic eliminates most neighbours; and the other youth around here would not go into someone’s house to revenge rodents.”
Handslip had sniggered a bit
“Not that amusing,” coldly, “yes the boy is a holy terror, but also never forget he’s also nuts.”
“How so ?” composing himself.
“Well… he’s not hot on respect for elders: I don’t mean he’s not very polite, but he doesn’t revere us anymore than others: he tries,” — an aggrieved note at the condescension murmured through — “quite obviously at times” moodily “to be extremely polite to everyone. I tackled him once about this and explained that the older an adult was the more one should respect them.”
The little bugger looked at me like a great-grandfather and — politely — explained that respect was not due to anyone as an individual, even if earned, but had to be paid to all things as created beings. It was something given not to be demanded. Then he got weird and explained that age although a reality was an illusion — how he combined the two, I mean this wasn’t religious or philosophical, he really is not clever, I don’t know, just silliness really — but the totality of a person was that they existed in all their ages at once, since the person at 80 was an extension of the same person at 8 and vice versa. And in Eternity.
“Well, don’t people complain to his mother ? Or does that count as ‘bothering her’ ?” asked the sceptical Handslip.
Pigg looked thoughtful: “A moot point; but I reckon it’s not that because he’s a fair little sod. He’d be quite willing to argue the matter out with her. OK, she doesn’t spoil him at all, though she adores him: pity she doesn’t, he might be a lot more bearable. If she’d stop pushing him so hard about school particularly, he can’t help not being able: puts all his energies in establishing his presence. No, the main reason is that he doesn’t leave evidence behind. Those sort are cunning if not clever. When he plans things — I’m not saying he puts a lot of thinking into that, just roughs out a plan, tests it then expects to deal with matters on the fly only if something really unforeseen occurs — he makes sure he’s covered the bases.”
Handslip: “Boys’ cleverness is the most devious and annoying ingenuity in the world. Explains why they’re best at creative art when older;” he put up a hand, “yes, I know this chap’s not of a high mental standard: but I mean in that cleverness wherein they direct their energies.”
“He does that all right.” moodily. Somehow he felt better at having spoken so freely about the bête noire, so contrary to his usual practice
“Doubbel, the retired butcher. There was an old abandoned mannequin — male, half falling down, left on a skip at the dress-shop last May. Heaven knows why they had a male one left over; discussing it with the non-committal Paul later, he told me his dear brother had suggested the old bird who ran the shop had brought it in to make the female models feel wanted. That’s what I mean, a deeply unkind mind. Mind you,” reluctantly, “thinking about Mrs. Toye, now I can well imagine it might have been true: she was a dizzy old bird. Anyway, it disappeared. No-one thought anything about it, nor would have, until Doubbel came down for breakfast one morning and found the fucking thing seated in the lounge on his own chair. In a cloak. With horns added and the usual appurtenances of the Devil.”
“Beard made from wool and a couple of rams’ horns found somewhere. What sort of bloody mind is that ? Nearly gave him a seizure. Swapped homes half a year later. Explained he could never feel the same way about the house after that. More importantly: how do you prove something like that ? We know who we suspect, but there wasn’t even a particle of evidence, and whoever it was came in through the window. Not that locks bother him. Family firm all connected with damned locks. Probably unlatched the door to bring it in, then locked up from the inside and went out back the window. Little bastard.”
“Breaking and entering ? That’s illegal.”
“He never breaks and enters. Read up law. He might trespass for five minutes, but that’s about all you could complain of. And no-one has ever gone to the police. They’re bloody useless half the time. I reckon half of them around here are students building up a bit of good pay in temporary work: no dedication. Anyway he’s not a thief, nothing has ever gone missing. Just mischief.”
“Well, there was once someone went to the police, but that was for insurance: the Whittakers at 34. Had run over The Runyons’ dog, poodle. OK, freezing weather and probably skidded, but weren’t concerned. Week later somebody had emerged in the wee small hours, connected to the outside tap, and hosed the outside walls patiently for quite a while. Who’s going to see that at three in the morning ? Wore rags around the boots, no pattern in the snow; no trail leading down the lane. They found it was like staring through three of those old-fashioned circled sweet-shop windows at once the ice was so thick. And because it seemed a little chilly inside they put up the heating full blast. Cracked half the windows. A not unintended bonus for the perpetrator no doubt.”
“They didn’t suspect James. He’d never spoken to them or they to he. We didn’t suggest it,” Seeing Handslip’s surprise, he shrugged, “Well, they weren’t that nice as people anyway. But we guessed.”
“D’don’t, you think… you might be ascribing to him all the things others do, sometimes ?”
“The day before I heard him playing Tosca very loudly. That was a good enough clue for me.”