• 22 Jun - 28 Jun, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

‘Mr Greenidge was scrabbling in his coat pocket and pulled out a toffee.

‘Here you are, have a sweetie. “Sharp’s the word”, eh?’

The toffee melted in my mouth and I realized Mr Greenidge thought I was going to tell of him. He looked old and frightened, with his nose pocked by the cold and turning purple and his eyes watering as if with tears.

‘What’s for tea, Mum?’ I said.

‘Wait-and-see,’ said Betty. ‘Care to join us, Mr Greenidge? You’ve very welcome.’

‘Ah, no thank you kindly, Mrs Harlency. Although wait-and-see is my favourite my own dear mother used to make it for me when I was a boy. I’ve, ah, I must make a telephone call to my lady wife, I’m on the way to the telephone box in Lovers Lane. Own line out of order I’m afraid. Must report it, eh?’

The blustering old liar raised his hat.

‘I’ve only ever seen cows down there. Lovers Lane, I mean,’ said Betty.

‘A trysting place of yesteryear,’ said Mr Greenidge, ‘a twitton of dalliance for our local swains and maidens fair, our village Romeos and Juliets. Well, I’ll bid you both a very good day.’

‘What a romantic soul,’ said Betty. ‘You can tell he’s missing his wife, bless him. Why did you suddenly stop back there, as if you’d remembered something? There isn’t anything you’re not telling me, is there?’

‘It was Rodney Pegg.’

‘Rodney Pegg?’ Her voice rose in disbelief. ‘What do you mean, it was Rodney Pegg?’

We were indoors now, taking off our coats.

‘I know it was Rodney Pegg who attacked Sorrel Marlowe. It must’ve been him.’

‘How do you know it was Sorrel Marlowe? Nobody’s supposed to know that. And what do you mean, “attacked”?’

‘It’s all round the school. Everybody knows.’

‘Oh dear, it’s all so nasty,’ said Betty.

Percy was in the armchair with Peter asleep in his arms.

‘What’s all so nasty? That bastard, pardon my French, interfering with that little girl?’

Interfering. It sounded so rude, so knickery, so fleshy.

‘April’s got it into her head that it was Rodney Pegg, but how could it have been? He lives miles away, in Tooting.’

‘We saw him, didn’t we, Dad? He came to the tea-room and ran away when he saw Dad. And I saw him getting of a train with his bike, the day we met Professor Scoley off the train.’

They wee both staring at me.

‘I could have sworn it was him, but he was gone so quickly. Took one look at me and scarpered. Why would he do that? I mean to say, I know we weren’t the best of friend but we never actually came to blows or anything.’

‘All the Pegg hated us,’ Betty said. ‘People like that shouldn’t have lodgers, and the state of the place! That cooker. That toilet.’

‘Even so, supposing you did see Rodney, what makesyou think it was him that – that – you know?’

‘Because he kissed me.’

‘He what? You mean you let him?’

Percy leaped up, waking Peter, who cried. I was crying too. ‘Did he do anything else?’

‘Shush, Percy. Here, give him to me. Why didn’t you tell us, love?’

‘Because he said he’d strangle me if I did, with one of your stockings,’ I wept.

Percy put his arm around me.

‘There, there. Hush now, it wasn’t your fault.’ Over my head he said, ‘I’ll tear him limb from limb.’

Then he said, ‘Come on, sit on Daddy’s lap and tell me all about it.’

‘I can’t. I’m too big.’

‘You’ll never be too big.’

I sat down, feeling dirty, wishing I’d never opened my mouth.

When I told my brief story, about Rodney fencing me against the wall of the hall with his front wheel, Percy said, ‘I think I’d better go and have a word with Constable Cox, don’t you? Will you be all right on your own?’

‘Oh, I’ll close up. Nobody’s going to come in now. You can do it, April.’

Ruby was scooting down the path on her bike when I turned the sign on the door round.

‘Did you cycle through the village on your own?’ Betty accused her.

‘Yes. Why?’ I’ve got lights on my bike.’

‘You two keep an eye on Peter while I get the tea. Put the wireless on. Let’s have a bit of entertainment,’ Betty said.

Later that evening Constable Cox called round.

‘Did he say anything to you, this Rodney Pegg?’ he asked,

‘No. He just sort of – glared.’

‘And he threatened you, did he, back in Tooting? Said he’d strangle you, were those his very words?’


I was squirming with shame. I felt like a criminal, with Constable Cox in our room, his uniform, asking embarrassing questions in front of Betty and Percy.

‘You’ve got the address then, sir?’ he asked Percy, who wrote down the Peggs’ name and address on a leaf torn from his ledger.

‘This will all be kept strictly confidential, madam,’ he told Betty, ‘with regard to the information. I’ll keep you posted. Thank you very much April, you’ve been most helpful. Don’t worry… if young Pegg is our man, we’ll soon have him behind bars.’

Then he became informal for a few minutes while he drank a cup of tea. ‘Be seeing you, Jim,’ said Percy when he showed him out.

‘I’m going up to my room’ I said.

‘All right love. Do you want a bath a bit later?’

So they thought I was dirty too. Now I would rather die than tell them about Mr Greenidge.

‘But I had one last night.’

‘I know, I just thought it might be soothing, relaxing. You can use one of my bath cubes.’

I lingered on the stairs long enough to hear Percy say, ‘If I get my hands on Pegg he’ll wish he was behind bars. I’ve a good mind to go up to London right now.’

‘I’d come with you, if I could. That filthy little swine, I’d tear him limb from limb myself. Best leave it to the police though, for now. I expect they’ll contact Scotland Yard.’

I was frightened by their voices, full of hate. They didn’t sound like my parents any more. I imagined Rodney pulled apart like a pink doll, his arms and legs wrenched off like tearing cloth. Or behind bars, in a suit of broad arrows, shaking them, whimpering and gibbering like a monkey at the zoo.

I lay on my bed reading Black Beauty. I knew I would never get over the death of poor Ginger either.


Three uneasy days passed before Jim Cox came back. ‘Well, have they arrested him? Betty demanded.

‘I’m afraid not, Betty. The local boys made a thorough investigation and it seems that young Pegg’s got a cast-iron alibi for the day in question. I’m sorry.’

‘I don’t effing believe it, said Percy.

‘They ought to call in the Yard,’ said Betty.

‘I can assure you that won’t be necessary,’ Constable Cox said stiffly.

‘So they’re just going to let the bugger cycle round the countryside assaulting little girls, are they? I’ve a good mind to sort him out myself.’

‘It’s never a good idea to take the law into your own hands, sir.’

‘Don’t sir me, Jim. How would you feel if it was one of your kids? What about my little girl, what he did to her?’

‘It would be difficult to make a charge stick on that once, Percy. Given the passage of time and the nature of the alleged assault, and it would be April’s word against his.’

‘Oh, alleged is it now?’ Betty said. ‘She was terrified of him. She was sleeping with a kitchen knife under her pillow.’

If I could have crawled under the table, I would have.

‘If he so much as shows his spotty face round here again, I’ll have him. I’ll knock his effing block off! What’s his flaming alibi then? It’d better be good.’

‘Rodney Pegg was in bed all day with the flu. Both his parents can vouch for him, and we have the unbiased corroboration of two lodgers.’

‘I bet,’ said Percy bitterly.

‘Unbiased, my eye,’ Betty put in. ‘What about that attack on Charmaine Vinnegar last year then? Did they ever catch the bloke who did that?’

‘Between you, me and the gatepost the Police are taking the Vinnegar incident with a pinch of salt. I do understand how you feel. As you say, I’m a parent myself, but barking up the wrong tree with this one isn’t going to catch the real culprit, is it? And as long as he’s at large, well…’

‘Did they chick his tyres, for mud and leaf mould and suchlike? Has he got one of those things, a wotsitsname, that counts the miles?’ Percy made a last attempt to get Rodney Pegg behind bars.

‘I shouldn’t go playing detective if I were you, Percy. Leave it to the professionals.’

‘Tell that to Sherlock Holmes.’

When Constable Cox had gone Percy said, ‘If anybody else so much as lays a finger on you, April, you come straight to me, OK?’

So my opportunity to have Mr Greenidge torn limb from limb like a dol or a Red Indian tied to two birch trees (an image that came courtesy of Miss Fay) or his block knocked off so that his smiling bearded face, pipe clenched between teeth, blue eyes twinkling, sailed over the hedge soaring into the paler blue ksy, was handed to me, as it were, on a plate. I could have asked for the head of John the Baptist, and I turned away. From time to time I caught Percy looking at me over the edge of the book he was reading or from the door as I went out, or across the room when I was serving a customer, and Rodney Pegg’s shadow fell between me and my dad.

Our house had a wintry gloom and an edgy atmosphere, as on a Monday morning when the washing line broke and the clean clothes fell into the mud, or the refrigerator died and all the ice-cream melted, when grown-ups’ snappiness gave little yappy flashes of a dangerous weir round a bend in the calm river. I tried to be as helpful as possible and Percy tried to be jolly. I was wiping the mock sundaes, the plaster knickerbocker glory and banana split, with a damp cloth when Percy took the tall glass from my hand and held it up saying, ‘Even the knickerbocker in all his glory is not arrayed like one of these.’ The fake cherry gleamed, the plaster wafer fanned out from its swirl of cream in the electric light of the January afternoon.

Although bad temper was the norm at the Rising Sun, I spent more time there now, snuggled up under Ruby’s lumpy green quilt in her cold bedroom., our hands freezing as we turned the pages of our books or invented secret codes or smoothed the creases from Ruby’s collection of gold and silver paper from cigarette packets and coloured sweet wrappers which she kept in a shoe box under her bed. Her walkie-talkie doll watched over us giving an occasional bleat of ‘mamaa’ and a glass rabbit I had bought her in Hastings stood on her windowsill catching the sun, when it shone, in its long amber ears. We took turns with our favourite books, Valley of Doom, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and Famous Fives and Lone Pine Adventures, and we were presently obsessed with two jumble-sale purchases, Lucifer and the Child by Ethel Mannin and Deathcap Cottage by V. L. Preedy, about a woman who poisoned her crippled husband. Its once yellow cover was engrained with grey and a smell of mildew came off its rust-pin-pointed pages and a long-dead spider’s egg in a gauzy net was found half-way through the book.

Time went on and no arrest was made and the ordeal of Sorrel in the woods ceased to be a topic of conversation, as if nothing very important had happened after all. Miss Fay had taken up Scottish dancing and caught the bus into Elmford once a week in her kilt, carrying her dancing shoes with their criss-cross laces, which she had shown once to the class, in a special bag. She read us Scottish poems and ballads. Pupils twirled their fingers at their heads behind her back to indicate that she had a screw loose but nobody dared snigger as Miss Fay stalked between the desks declaiming ‘Why does your brand sae drap wi’ blood’ waving the blackboard pointer so vividly that it became a dripping sword.

‘February Fill-Dyke’, she wrote on the board while the rain slashed the playground with silver balls and gurgled in the drains and the class-room steamed with wet wool and meaty cabbagy smells and Veeronica smelled of marmite. Doreen’s ears healed and she had a home perm.

Granny, who came with Grandpa and George for Peter’s christening, had had her hair permed into purple sprouting broccoli; Grandpa was delighted with Peter.

‘Look at that leg,’ he said, pinching it. ‘You can just see it on a plate with gravy and roast potatoes.’

‘Don’t forget the apple sauce,’ said Granny.

They had brought a bottle of sherry and whiskey and one of gin, and wisps of blue cigarette were caught in the watery sun. There were ten of us in the tea-room, with the closed sign on the door, the family, Ruby, George and Bobs and Dittany, eating Peter’s cake with a white stork and a silver frill, and Boy, wearing a white ribbon, who would have liked to. Mr Oswald had gone to the christening party of the baby girl, who had been baptised at the same time as Peter. George and Dittany, who had won the honour from Bobs on the toss of a coin, were Peter’s godparents.

I was envious of this, my own godparents having been lost along the way before I ever knew them. Granny Harlency had insisted that I should be christened, against Percy’s wishes, and Betty said that it was only fair that Peter should be too. Also, people kept asking her if Peter had been christened yet.

to be continued...