“They used to call him Stig, y’know.”
“Who?” Ian Foster twisted round from his position in the front of the van.
“Who d’you think? Him. Old Mr Gable,” said Barney Atkins leaning on the back of Ian’s seat and looking out though the windscreen.
In the driver’s seat, Donald McKenzie muttered something.
“Why?” asked Ian.
“Doesn’t take much bleedin’ working out, does it, son? Look at the bloody place.” Barney pointed with a chubby finger at the house.
Ian turned back and took in the sight ahead of him. Not that he hadn’t noticed the spot as soon as they’d turned the sharp snake corner and the van had parked up. It was very hard to miss. It stood out like the eyesore it was - and seemed proud of the fact. The other houses on Damby Street were relatively normal. Pebble-dashed council jobs in uniform greys and reddy-browns, the occasional bay window or porch the only sign of individuality. But Old Mr Gable’s place… Now that had some real balls. It flaunted convention, broke away from the pack and did its own thing. Rather than grey or brown, it’d been painted a strange white colour that had, over the years, turned pus yellow, with the odd bird mess splashing here and there on the roof to add effect. The windows, those that could be seen through the leaves of the hanging - or more accurately wilting - trees on either side of the property, sported battered paintwork that was riddled with damp, crumbling off without any real encouragement. The glass itself was either jet black, as if it had been smeared with tar, or it had old sun-browned newspaper pasted to it from the inside. Something resembling mutated ivy was attacking the walls from the outside, reminding Ian of an old cheesy science fiction flick he’d once seen.
And that was just the house itself. The garden was another matter entirely. Beyond a fence and gate that was bowed to such an extent it looked like a roller-coaster track in places - twisting and turning, defying gravity somehow - was a mass of junk the likes of which Ian had never ever seen. It strained against the hedge that separated this plot of land from next door’s, almost crushing the greenery with its bulk. The path leading to the front door was barely visible anymore; in fact it was all Ian could do to actually pick out the front door. Heaps of rusted metal, plastic bags and cardboard formed a kind of weird decaying sculpture in that ‘garden’. Plastic bottles and discarded tins the only flowers that would ever grow there.
“I still don’t-”
“Stig,” repeated Barney. “Stig of the bleedin’ Dump. Don’t they read any books at school these days? It’s a classic is that.”
Ian shook his head. “Never heard of it.”
Barney groaned. “Well, that’s what they called him round here. Old Mr Gable: Stig of the Dump. For obvious reasons.”
“Wasnae even his real name,” Donald grumbled in his rough Scottish brogue.
“What’s that, Don?” asked Barney. “Stig? I know it wasn’t. That was his nickname.”
Don scowled at Barney. “Not Stig, you prick. Gable. Gable wasnae his real name.”
Barney pulled a piece of paper out of his trouser pocket. “Says Gable on the form, Macca.”
“I dinnae care what it says, it wasnae his real name. Didn’t you ever hear his voice, man? He was foreign.”
“You can bloody talk,” said Barney, smirking. “You’re a bleedin’ foreigner yourself.”
“Dinnae fucking start with me today, Barney,” Don warned him.
Barney held up a hand to ward him off; he didn’t want any trouble today either, not with the task they had ahead of them. But he just couldn’t help winding up his quick-tempered friend. “All right, all right. So what was he then?”
“How in the hell should I know. Czech, Hungarian, Russian…something like that. Doesnae really matter now. He’s gone, and no a minute before time.”
“Amen to that,” said Barney. “Miserable old git. It’s because of people like him that our Steph’s been on the waiting list for so long. Should’ve been in a home ages ago.”
Ian listened to the conversation and said nothing. He didn’t feel qualified to take part, having only joined this group the previous week: dumped in their lap by the Job Centre so he wouldn’t be a burden on the welfare system anymore…such as it was. Their first appointment had been a clean-up on the Wingfield Estate, nothing major. They’d had it ready for the next set of tenants in a couple of days, but it had given him a chance to observe his new workmates quite a bit, and he’d already formed impressions of them. The first time he’d met Barney, the man had been sat like a working class Buddha, eating a cheese and pickle sandwich and ogling a picture of a topless model in a newspaper. “Look at the set on that one,” he’d said to Ian by way of a greeting, bits of bread flying out of his mouth like scattershot pellets. “They look like bleedin’ beachballs, they do.”
Scotsman Don, on the other hand, had barely said a word to Ian the whole of the first day. And Ian didn’t push it because Don was well over seven feet tall with hands the size of dinnerplates. Barney had explained that he didn’t like strangers much - didn’t like anything much, come to that - but he’d get used to the lad. Eventually. It was Don who’d done most of the heavy lifting during the clean-up, shifting tables and wardrobes with ease, throwing them outside like he was tossing cabers. If this had been another time, another century, Ian could very easily have pictured him rushing into a Braveheart-style battle and doing the same with his enemies. Whenever they took their break, Don would down two cans of Stones without batting an eyelid, in spite of the fact he always drove the van. The alcohol probably took longer to reach his brain because of the sheer volume of his size, and if the law ever did stop him it was doubtful whether they’d have the guts to ask him to blow into a bag, let alone arrest him. The only reason Barney was able to get away with pulling the man’s considerable leg was because he’d known him for a good few years as far as Ian could tell.
At that moment there was the sound of an engine, and all eyes swivelled to the right. A silver four-by-four drove past the van and parked up just in front of it.
“What time d’you make it?” asked Barney.
Ian looked at his watch. “Just gone five past nine.”
“Must be fast,” said Barney. “The Dragon Lady’s never late. She says nine, it’s nine.”
Ian looked blank.
“Oh that’s right, you haven’t had the pleasure yet, have you, son? Doubt whether many men have come to think of it. And those that have probably got frostbite in certain intimate places.”
The driver’s door of the vehicle swung open and out stepped a woman of about thirty-five years of age. She wore a trouser-suit and her auburn hair was cut short. As she walked up to their van, Ian could also see that she wore glasses. Her face was stern, thin lips pursed. She banged on the driver’s side door with her fist.
“That’s our cue,” said Barney, disappearing into the darkness at the back of the van. Don opened his door and Ian copied him.
The ‘Dragon Lady’ was standing on the pavement next to the road now, halfway between the van and her four-by-four. Don and Ian waited for Barney to emerge from the van and then went to join her.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” she said, somehow making the term sound like ‘scumbags’. “So, finally, the day has arrived.”
Barney nodded his head. “About time.”
“I couldn’t agree more. After all the difficulty we’ve had from Mr Gable… Well, let’s just say I didn’t shed many tears.”
Ian thought Barney might come out with something like: “Why does that not surprise me?” But he didn’t.
“And who’s this?” she asked, pointing to Ian.
“Oh,” she said, looking Ian up and down. “Does he have a name?”
Barney was about to answer for him, when Ian spoke up first. “Ian. My name’s Ian.”
He thought he detected the faintest glimmer of a smile on her face, but then it was gone. “I see. Well, I’m Miss Cauldicott and I’ve been attached to this…case for over fourteen months now, after my predecessor very kindly passed it on; an act for which I sincerely hope he burns in Hades for all eternity. No doubt these two have filled you in about this particular property and its owner.”
“I know they used to call him Stig,” said Ian.
“Stig of the Dump.”
Barney could barely contain a titter as Miss Cauldicott glared at Ian. “It’s not a matter for amusement. Do you know how many sleepless nights I’ve had because of your so-called ‘Stig of the Dump’? Well, do you?” Her words carried the barbed edge of authority to them.
Ian remained silent.
“The amount of times we’ve been here, the amount of court orders, the amount of times the police have been called out. And as for that embarrassment with the newspapers…” Miss Cauldicott clicked her tongue. “I don’t like seeing my name plastered all over the local rags, young man. That’s not funny, it’s not funny at all. Why don’t they get their facts straight before…” She realised Ian was looking at her strangely and paused. “There are two sides to every argument.”
“I don’t think we’ll have to bother about that today, Miss C,” said Barney. “We can get on without any argy bargy.”
“Yes, indeed. The first skip is due to arrive anytime and then we can crack on.”
“Crack on? Wait a minute, what about the others?” asked Barney.
“You’re not telling me it’s just the three of us?”
“Four of us,” said Miss Cauldicott. “I’ll be around to help out.”
“That’s…” Barney chose his words carefully. “Good of you, but we’re going to need more blokes…er, I mean, workers.”
Miss Cauldicott sniffed. “This is it for now. We’ll assess the situation after we’ve made a start and see what we shall see.”
“But…But look at it.” Barney thumbed back at the property. Ian knew what he meant. It would take days, possibly weeks to clear the garden and house with only the one crew.
“We’re just going to have to make do for now,’ said Miss Cauldicott.
“Typical,” said Don and walked back towards the van.
The large mustard yellow skip arrived as they were getting suited up; orange and blue overalls over the top of their ordinary clothes, clip belts with torches dangling, boots and gloves - taped around the tops to stop any unwelcome visitors gaining access - and hardhats. Don, Barney and Ian dressed from the back of their van, while Miss Cauldicott prepared by the side of her four-by-four.
Next they put on masks, with Vaseline rubbed over the filters. The smell inside was going to be bad - and they knew it. Without Mr Gable’s extraordinary resistance to the stench they’d be overpowered in seconds. Ian had a little trouble with his, so Barney tightened it from the back, slapping the top of his hardhat when he was finished.
Ian tried to say something, but it came out as a jumble of muffled sounds.
“Ready?” asked Miss Cauldicott as they all met up again.
“As we’ll ever be,” said Barney.
“Then after you, Mr Atkins.”
To Ian’s mind they must have looked like spacemen - and one space woman - landing on a distant planet. Their movements were in slow motion, not due to any loss of gravity, but because none of them was in any hurry to reach the gate. It was funny; for people who’d waited so long for this day to come, if Miss Cauldicott was to be believed, they didn’t seem very keen to proceed now. Was it the scale of the operation facing them, or something else?
Neighbours from either side had come out to see what was happening. One, a plump woman with her arms folded over her ample bosom, shouted: “Shame it had to come to this before you lot pulled your finger out!”
Miss Cauldicott gave her a passing glance and carried on.
Ian overheard a younger, bottle blonde girl gossiping to someone about Old Mr Gable. “God knows how long he’d been in there before anyone realised…It’s not as if they could smell him or whatever.”
“Hardly anything left by the time they got to him, apparently,” came the reply.
The four astronauts trudged on, Barney opening the gate to allow access to the garden. Ian could now see that the wood was spattered with holes, eaten away. Barney gave the gate a shove, pushing back an old disintegrating tin bucket and broken washing basket. Don chose to step over the fencing instead, trampling on broken flowerpots, rotten crates and a couple of striped deck-chairs.
“I think the best thing we can do is form a chain here,” said Miss Cauldicott. So while she officiated, the others started picking up objects and passing them along to the skip. One of the first things Barney picked up was a child’s bicycle.
“What’s he doing with this? He didn’t even have any children, did he?” asked Barney.
“Not to my knowledge,” said Miss Cauldicott.
“They wouldn’t have bleedin’ survived long in this rat-hole anyway.”
“Give it here,” said Don and flung it into the skip.
This went on for an hour or so, and before they knew it they’d filled the yellow receptacle without even denting the mass of rubbish in the garden. While they were waiting for the next one, Miss Cauldicott suggested a reccie into the house itself. Don cast aside some chipped gnomes and tyres to try and make the path a bit less treacherous.
Ian thought he saw something move over to Barney’s right; just a quick swish of fur. Then it was gone.
“Come on,” said Barney. “The sooner we take a look around, get the lay of the land, the sooner we’ll know what we’re dealing with.”
Don was already nearly at the door. Virtually swimming through the debris, he kicked over old motorcycle engine parts and ripped up plastic sheeting. Seizing an ironing board, he flipped it over his shoulder. It landed a metre or so away from Barney.
“Hey, watch what you’re bloody doing, Macca!” he called after the Scotsman, but he didn’t take any notice.
Ian watched Miss Cauldicott stoop to pick up a piece of piping, then drop it again. Behind the glasses her eyes screwed up with disgust. “How could anyone have lived like this? Why would anyone have wanted to?” she said. “Let alone fought so long to stay here? It beggars belief.”
They made their way tentatively through the rubbish, boots often squishing as they stepped in something soft, slipping off the uneven terrain, until they were at the front door. Don was already clearing away when they got there, moving aside a couple of oil drums and uncovering more of the peeling paintwork. A rusted knocker was hanging off its hinges in the middle of the door, and there was just a gap where the letterbox should have been.
“Key?” asked Don.
Miss Cauldicott pushed past Barney, to get a better view. “It should still be open,” she told him. “I don’t think the lock worked anyway.”
“It’s not as if he was likely to get bleedin’ burgled,” said Barney.
“According to him, that’s exactly what we were trying to do. Take away his belongings, steal all his worldly goods,” said Miss Cauldicott. “Obviously the fact that this place is a cess-pit and an environmental hazard of the highest order had nothing to do with it. Oh no, we just wanted to get our hands on this Aladdin’s cave right here…”
Don placed his hands on the door and shoved. It wouldn’t budge. He pressed his shoulder up against it and tried again. Nothing.
“Put your back into it,” Barney encouraged.
Don stopped what he was doing and grabbed Barney’s arm. “How about we both put our backs intae it.”
“Sounds fair,” said Barney as he was dragged up to the front door.
Both men pushed on the door but it still wouldn’t give.
“I don’t understand this,” said Miss Cauldicott. “They left it open when they brought him out. It shouldn’t be-”
The barrier suddenly gave and Don and Barney fell into the house. There was more movement from behind the door, things scattering in all directions - some alive - and they scrambled to their feet as quickly as they could.
“Did you hear that?” said Barney. Don didn’t answer him.
The light from the door only stretched so far into the house before dissipating, but they could see enough to realise that it wasn’t much tidier inside. For a start, mountains of old newspapers and magazines filled the space in front of them. And yet there was nothing directly behind the door itself that might have accounted for its resistance.
“What was the problem?” asked Miss Cauldicott, crossing the threshold and running an eye over the door.
“The wood was probably just warped.” Barney offered.
“This whole place is warped. It’s going to take a lot of work to turn it around, even after the clean up.”
“Well, this is all unknown territory, the inner sanctum” said Barney. “How’d you want to play it, Miss C?”
I think we’ll get through this quicker if you and the boy…” she struggled for Ian’s name then gave up, “…have a look around down here. Myself and Mr McKenzie will assess the upstairs. That’s if we can actually find the stairs.”
“Okay,” Barney said slowly, not entirely convinced. “Let’s get to it then.”
Flashlights on, they made their way further into the house. Miss Cauldicott did find the bottom of the stairs, and a small groove had been left up the right hand side, obviously so Old Mr Gable could get to bed of an evening. Otherwise he might have needed a grappling rope to tackle the incline. More rubbish cluttered up the stairs themselves, from bits of string and sacks full of goodness knows what, to used paint pots and even a plastic fish tank.
“Come on,” said Barney to Ian. “Time to explore.”
There seemed to be only two rooms on the ground level, and there were no doors attached to either of them. The biggest of the two served as the living room and kitchen combined, as the walls appeared to have been knocked through. When they stepped inside they just stood there staring. The whole area was a shrine to the gods of garbage; the amount of grot impossible to comprehend. There were clocks, some working, some with their innards spilling out; electric fires with the plugs missing, so that the frayed ends of wire poked out from behind; dented gas heaters stacked against a far wall, the gaps filled in with more newspapers; old record players - not the new CD versions, but proper turntable ones - and records as well, although there was no apparent order to their storage; a couple of TVs with wooden frames, one smaller than the other and probably black and white; rugs with hideous patterns and ornamental swords; dozens of pairs of spectacles, some broken, some without any glass at all; various types of kitsch ornaments, some brass and some pot? (one in particular caught Ian’s eye, a badly painted statuette of two cherubs blowing bubbles from pipes); and more cardboard boxes and plastic carrier bags than you could count. There was no furniture, nothing to sit on, just the expanse of tat. As their torches played over this assortment of items, they both shuddered. The lack of light gave these surroundings a strange eerie guise, and their dominance of the room would have made any other intruders think twice about entering.
“Bleedin hell. I knew it would be bad, but I had no idea,” said Barney eventually. “In all my time, I’ve never…Three men my arse. And her ladyship’s going to be about as much use as…” He shook his head, perhaps wondering where they were going to begin; something Ian had been thinking as well.
It was a long time before either of them moved.
The landing was a warzone.
These were Jemima Cauldicott’s first thoughts on arriving at the top of the stairs. Devastation everywhere. Disarray, chaos; everything she hated in life.
What was she doing here? What was she actually doing here? There was no need to be. She could have just issued the orders, sent the men off to do their job, and then turned up when it was almost completed to survey the scene of her triumph. Her victory over entropy, her revenge upon Old Mr Gable. Was it necessary for her to be here just to make sure it was all done correctly, so she could savour every last moment perhaps?
There’d been no need for any of this, in fact. If he’d only accepted that she was trying to do him a favour. That he was harming not only himself, but putting the other people on this street at risk. Some of them had children for heaven’s sake. It just wasn’t on. But he’d been on the defensive right from the start, even though she’d tried to talk him round in her politest tones - which, she had to admit herself, probably put his back up even more. Jemima had never been much of a diplomat…too used to getting her own way to compromise. But she hadn’t let his protests and arguments deter her. She’d simply bombarded him with ultimatums, turned up with Atkins, McKenzie and others a few times, trying to get started what they’d begun today. Trying to put this place to rights. Then the press had got involved…
Jemima remembered waking up to that news one morning, having her name dragged through the mud: her family name! Mr Gable had gone too far that time. Was there any wonder she’d smiled from ear to ear when the phonecall came to tell her about him. That no one had seen the old man for a while and his milk had stacked up by the gate; the milkman never risked going to his front door. He was better off, she told herself. Had to be better than living like this. It just had to be.
Don McKenzie joined her on the landing and surveyed the scene: the pram full of catalogues, empty photo-frames, tatty suitcases, the bits of model traintrack, the lampshades and smashed bulbs, the peeling wallpaper wherever you could see empty patches on the walls. He gave no reaction one way or the other, he just started to swat some of the junk on the floor out of the way, trying to create a track to the bedrooms. It must have been like an assault course for Mr Gable every night…
Jemima turned to her left and saw the crack of a door open. Placing her flashlight under her arm, she pushed it open further…and what she saw almost made her vomit.
Ian was told to wait there in the living room while Barney tried to make his way through to the kitchen. Out of boredom more than anything, he began examining the huge collection of rubble there, picking out the most stable objects, the ones that weren’t holding up huge tottering towers of trash, and placing then in a pile. What good this would do wasn’t clear, as he was just making more of a mess, but at least it was better than twiddling his thumbs. It was as he carefully selected a chipped flower vase that a drawer fell out beneath; it made him jump back and he gasped for air behind the mask. Ian almost called out Barney’s name, but managed to get a handle on himself first. It was only a drawer, nothing more, nothing less. Quite where the rest of the dresser or sideboard had got to, Ian had no idea; maybe it had disintegrated. He approached the wooden rectangle, which was full of papers: receipts - some printed, some handwritten and dating back to the 50s and 60s - and other more legal-looking documents. Ian fished about inside.
There were also letters here, written in a very decorative style. The curling penmanship was beautiful. Ian attempted to read some of them, but couldn’t quite manage it. He’d never been too good at reading really, which was probably why they’d never bothered giving him Stig of the Dump to peruse at school. And why he’d ended up working for a crew like this one. Then he realised he couldn’t read them because they weren’t in English. But they were all signed by someone whose name ended with ‘uska’. The letters were old, fading with age, some torn and ripped at the edges.
Beneath these was a leather-bound photo album. Ian wiped off the dust on the cover and opened the first page.
Barney swore as he nearly tripped over a rolled up piece of carpet: offcuttings from a larger piece he guessed. He put out his hands to steady himself, then hauled his bulk into the kitchen proper. Barney could tell it was the kitchen because it was full of pots, pans and plates. Literally. From floor to ceiling. Oh, and there was a sink straight in front of him, enamel chipped and stained. Unwashed teacups were piled inside. As he came closer, his torch picked out a shiny brown centipede crawling from the sink. Barney pulled a face.
The sun was straining to break through the news-sheet at the back window, and tears here and there allowed Barney a view of the back yard and garden. He saw enough to know that the rot had set in out there as well. It was the same, if not worse, as the front. A black range grill complete with a frying pan on top was over to the right of him, thick grease marks smeared all over it. A whistle kettle was on the side, next to a box of matches. And beyond this, what looked like a larder.
“Not exactly the Savoy,” he said. Not exactly any kind of place he’d want to eat in, even with his piggish appetite.
Barney braved the stacked crockery and poked his head into this smaller opening. He swished his light around inside, and saw the maggot-riddled remains of a hunk of meat lying on a shelf. The cream-coloured grubs writhed all over the surface, their black ‘heads’ twitching.
Barney quickly switched off the light. He didn’t want to see any more.
Why had Gable gone on like this? Surely he could see he wasn’t in a fit state to look after himself anymore. If he hadn’t been such a stubborn old bastard, he might have been living the life of riley in some retirement joint while someone like Barney’s niece could’ve moved in and taken care of the place… Barney thought about the mess Steph always left for her mother to tidy up in the flat. No, maybe that wasn’t such a good example. But all the same…
Barney was suddenly aware of movement behind him.
“Son, I thought I told you to stay-” he began, but didn’t have time to say anymore. He was being pushed into the larder, into the blackness.
“Look…I mean, just look at this!”
Jemima Cauldicott was jabbing a digit in the direction of the offending bottles and tupperware containers, some of which had their lids off. Don removed his hardhat and scratched his head. Looking in there made Jemima feel like scratching the whole of her body.
“Is that wae I think it is?” said Don.
“I knew there was something wrong with the man, but… Who does something like this? It’s…It’s…”
Don brought his torch to bear and walked inside the toilet. The room was a mess, about that there was no surprise. But the fact that there were rows and rows of bottles filled with yellow liquid, that the grubby bath was overloaded with them, came as a bit of a shock. However it was the contents of the tupperware boxes that really did the trick. The flies were a bit of a giveaway, but in case they were in any doubt whatsoever, the sticky brownness caked around their lids guaranteed that there was no mistaking this substance.
If Barney had been present he might have diffused the situation by saying something like “well, this is just taking the piss”, or “now the shit’s going to hit the fan”. But he wasn’t here, and so the creepiness of it all remained.
“He must hae been doing this for years,” said Don.
Jemima didn’t want to think about that. “It’s some kind of disorder, that’s what it is. Wait till TheEcho learns about this. That’ll put the record straight. These conditions weren’t fit for animals to live in, let alone a human being. They’ll see that now. It’ll vindicate everything.”
“Why would he wannae-” Don started, but was cut off by a banging from above.
Jemima whirled around. “What’s that?”
Don looked up at the ceiling. “Sounds like it’s coming from the loft.”
The first few pages of Mr Gable’s album were like any other. There were family pictures, sepia toned, all happy snaps. A man and a woman, possibly his mother and father, and two children: one boy, one girl. They were either standing near to, or next to, a brightly painted white house with a large garden. There weren’t many photos like this, and soon the album turned into more of a scrapbook of sorts.
Clippings from an ancient newspaper, again with foreign writing Ian couldn’t read. But he could see the pictures clearly enough. The troops in the streets, the bombed out houses, children playing in the rubble. He’d been awake just long enough in History lessons to recognise what that meant. Ian flipped on a little further. To photographs taken in colour now, albeit very faint colour. To a young lad not that much older than himself; very handsome, with a thin moustache, slicked back hair, wearing a suit. On the facing page of one of these was a picture cut out of a magazine of a man with a similar moustache and very piercing eyes. There was a first name underneath, but the rest was torn by the ripping. It read ‘ Clark’.
On the next few pages, photos of a house. Ian didn’t recognise it at first, because it was so clean and new: it stood out from the rest of the houses on the street, as the smartest rather than the dirtiest. Its white walls shone in the summer sun on these pictures, a home to be proud of. And outside, a polished motorbike and sidecar - a real dream model. Then pictures of the man working beneath the bonnet of a car, spanner in hand, and fixing a radio at a desk: a handyman, who could mend just about anything.
Swapping the torch to his other hand, Ian turned the next page, the card creasing a little with the clumsiness of his gloved fingers. Here he saw pictures of a young woman, breathtakingly beautiful. Her shoulder-length blonde hair cupped a smiling face, the lips thick, the cheekbones perfect. Ian spotted a smaller photo of the young man and woman together. He turned the next page and found it blank.
Flipping through, he discovered that the rest of the album was blank too. It was as if the owner’s life had simply stopped at that point. Maybe there was another album that carried on the story somewhere around here; maybe they’d find it as the clear-out continued. But then Ian got to the back of the book and a couple of newer clippings fell out. They were articles from the local newspaper. The first read:
The battle rages on between pensioner Mr Gable of 3, Damby Street and the authorities, who are still insistent on getting him to ‘clean up his act’. He claims that he is being harassed unfairly and should be able to live his life as he sees fit, while facing increasing pressure from the courts…
And below this Ian got his first look at Mr Gable as an old man. The moustache was now overgrown and white, and there were heavy wrinkles around the eyes and neck. But it was unmistakably the same man from the photographs - his life in pictures.
The next article, however, focused more on Miss Jemima Cauldicott.
It begs the question whether this woman cares about anything other than winning. Her tactics have been heavy handed and, to quote Mr Gable himself, bear the mark of a ‘totalitarian regime’. Something he should know all about…
It was a truly awful picture of The Dragon Lady as well, her sour face even sterner than usual. Little wonder she’d been so upset. The article had painted her to be a real nasty piece of work. How much had been the truth and how much a distortion, Ian had no way of knowing, but one thing was for sure. There had been no love lost between them. Ian read on…
Barney Atkins was blind.
Or at least that’s what it felt like. He couldn’t see a thing, not even the entrance to the larder. Somewhere along the line he’d lost his grip on his torch, so he patted around on his hands and knees, trying to find it.
It had to be Don who’d pushed him in here. Retaliation for that crack earlier about him being a foreigner. “That bleedin’ Scotch lunatic,” Barney said to himself. “Wait till I get my hands on him. I don’t care how bloody big he is, I’ll-”
His hand was in something soft. The meat? Had he knocked it to the ground when he’d tumbled in? “Look, this isn’t funny. Can you bleedin’ well get me out of here now?”
He swept the floor with his palms. There; he’d found it: his torch. Barney fumbled with the switch, flicking it on once, twice. It wasn’t working. He banged it with his gloved hand.
Something touched his leg.
Barney let out a whimper and crawled backwards.
Suddenly another something had a hold of his head. It was wrenching off his mask, breaking the elasticated straps on either side. His hardhat dropped off in the struggle and bounced on the solid floor. The noise reverberated throughout the larder. Things were sliding over him, he could feel their sliminess, their wetness through his clothes. And he could smell the foul air now, an overpowering stench. Of rot, of decay, of death.
Barney’s flashlight came on.
And he started to scream.
Don could open the attic trap-door without too much trouble; he just reached up with one long arm and shoved at it.
“There isn’t any ladder,” Jemima told him.
Don pulled across a suitcase and tipped it on its side. He tested one foot on it. It’d probably hold his weight, long enough to get up there anyway. He hung his torch on his belt and leapt up. For a man of his size, Don McKenzie was remarkably sprite. Jemima couldn’t help admiring his agility as he pulled himself through the gap in the ceiling, her flashlight following in his trail.
A few seconds went by and nothing happened.
“Mr McKenzie,” she called out from below. “Mr McKenzie…” Jemima walked directly beneath the trap-door.
His head appeared at the hole, startling her. “I cannae see nothing. Jus more rubbish.”
The banging came again.
“Wait a second…” he said, and his face disappeared from the hole.
“Mr McKenzie…Mr McKenzie?” Her voice took on a more urgent tone.
There was more banging.
Something smashed in the bathroom. Jemima turned in time to see more of the bottles exploding in there, splattering the walls with urine, upturning the tupperware containers as they did so.
When she turned back to the trap-door, a deluge of junk was falling from it, joining that which already covered the landing: broken hairdryers, golf balls, comic-book annuals, chains, keys, party favours, more plastic bags, lightbulbs, a handbag, a sewing machine, tins full of screws and nails and springs, hairbrushes, jars, ribboning audio-tapes, a dog lead, batteries… And with this fell a stream of spiders, cockroaches and rats, the latter squeaking for all they were worth.
Jemima Cauldicott stumbled backwards, the force of the onslaught knocking her into one of the bedrooms. She fell on a pile of old clothes, soft, springy, but hardly warm and welcoming. The rough texture of a knitted jumper brushed against her face, a cotton shirt wrapped itself around her, an old waistcoat covering her eyes momentarily. She wrestled with the apparel, becoming even more entangled in the swampy fabric. A sock wormed its way under her mask and into her mouth. Jemima gagged on it, but it didn’t do any good; she could feel it sliding down her throat, choking her.
And all the time more trash fell from the attic, pouring onto the landing. The stairs could no longer be seen. Somewhere a music box began playing a lyrical tune…
Then there was a sudden crash.
Ian got up, dropping the photo album back into the drawer.
They shouldn’t be here; he knew that now. Even he could see this, as terrible as he was at it: even he could read between these lines. Ian ran over to the gap that joined the living room to the kitchen, and put his head through. He called out to Barney, flipped his torch-beam around the kitchen. There was nobody there, just stacks of pots, pans and dishes all round. No way out, no other way in.
Ian’s hand shook as he pulled the torch back, as he pulled out of the gap. And as if to match his actions, the walls began shaking now, the towers of trash toppling. Ian dodged a flying toaster, which missed him by centimetres, but felt a hard object jamming into his ribs: the end of a cricket bat. The limited amount of space in the living room was rapidly decreasing. The walls seemed to be caving in on Ian, a maelstrom whipping up in front of his eyes. Panicking, he looked around for the door, but couldn’t see it.
He knew where it was, though, knew where it had been before all this debris had blocked it off. Ian scaled the mounting heaps of dreck, a new landscape that was forming right in front of his eyes. He clawed aside the objects, using his torch as a sort of wedge to drag himself along, up and over. Except these weren’t just mounds and mounds of rubbish, were they? He’d realised that as he’d been flipping through the photo album, piecing together Old Mr Gable’s life, filling in the gaps himself…
This place was Mr Gable. The result of half a century or more of accumulation. After having so little for so long, during those hard, dark days in the conflict, he’d learnt the precious lesson of hoarding. The items in here and out there were his treasures, and he saw them in quite a different light to everyone else. He’d invested his heart and soul into his property, and would fiercely defend it against any attackers. What had happened to the woman in the photos, Ian still didn’t know, but he did know that Old Mr Gable’s house and belongings were all he had left. He’d been robbed of one mother country and wasn’t about to be robbed of another.
Ian managed to part a solid curtain in front of him and slide through, dropping headfirst into the hallway. He just had time to look up before the body dropped through the ceiling. Don McKenzie plummeted to the ground level, accompanied by a wave of sundry items. He landed badly, the newspapers and magazines falling and burying him beneath their weight. A hand reached out through them and Ian tried to grab it. He caught the tips of the glove, but it came off in spite of the tape, as Don was sucked down even further.
Ian groped for the front door. His foot snagged on something. He was being hauled backwards, could find no purchase. There was a sliver of light ahead of him, but the front door was closing. If he didn’t do something soon he’d be trapped in here forever.
He thought he heard a voice coming from somewhere, from everywhere - the combined rustle of paper and plastic bags, the groaning of stacked objects, the squeak of the rats, the scuttling of insects…And from the room to his right.
You go now…You leave my home and not come back…
There was a thick foreign accent, an unmistakable determination to it. And now Ian knew where Old Mr Gable had been discovered. In life he’d been too frail to battle on, but now he’d found a way. He was still here.
Ian pulled at his leg and the boot came off. Without a moment’s hesitation, he crawled towards the front door, prising it open with his body, just about getting through it to freedom.
That sun was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Ian crawled from the house, scrambling over the treasures still left in the garden, pulling off his mask and hardhat as he went. He noticed a children’s bike ahead of him, and the skip now empty. Their work undone. Exhausted, he took a look over his shoulder, the debris still following him through doors and blacked out windows. It spilled out of the house, filling the breaches that they’d made. Fortifying.
For a second he saw the face, the true face of this house, this man-made topography.
One and the same; inseparable.
And Ian realised that one homeland had now well and truly been reclaimed.
(C) Paul Kane 2005
© Paul Kane 2003-2018. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.