The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 6 – Persistence

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017Chapter 6 – Persistence

Tim woke slowly, something was – not wrong, just different. Despite last night’s beers it was not a hangover. Roped into an impromptu darts match he had stayed the entire evening. Half-asleep in the pre-dawn light he shifted his legs and felt a familiar and much missed weight across his feet.

Delight filled him. ‘Morse! You utter rascal, where have you been?’

He reached for the light. It wasn’t Morse.

A plump, black, green-eyed Manx cat sprawled at the bottom of the bed. Around its neck was a red leather collar with an enamelled red and gold Welsh dragon for a nametag. This member of the unusual tailless breed belonged to Mrs Woosencraft. The cat gave Tim a look of casual disregard then lay its head between its paws and went back to sleep.

‘Oh no you don’t.’ Tim rolled out of bed and pulled on trousers and tee-shirt. ‘Come on you lump, I don’t know how you got in here but I know where you came from and you’re going home.’

He scooped up the cat and it sagged artlessly in his hands. Tim hung it over one arm while he unhooked its claws from the blanket.

Out in the hallway Tim checked his watch: 5:30 am. With the excitement of thinking Morse had returned he was wide awake. He put the cat down on the floor, where it began to wash.

‘I don’t blame you coming up here,’ Tim told it. ‘Sharing your home with eighteen other cats can’t be easy. Well, seventeen, what with one missing. Still, a one-nineteenth part of extra living space can’t be very noticeable.’

The kettle boiled and Tim made the tea.

‘Right, let’s see which one you are.’ He picked up the cat and it was content to sit on Tim’s knee and be stroked. He turned the nametag over and saw ‘Woosencraft’ engraved there, her phone number was at the bottom, and in the centre, ‘Pedwar’.

‘Hello, Pedwar.’ Tim scratched it behind the ears. Pedwar purred and pushed his head against Tim’s fingers. Tim yawned, his early morning burst of energy had faded. ‘It’s time to take you home…in a minute…’

The sun was in his eyes when Tim woke again, feeling well rested and content. Pedwar was gone from his lap but unlike Morse, Tim knew exactly where he was.

Ten minutes later Tim rapped the heavy iron ring knocker on Mrs Woosencraft’s front door. Pedwar hung comfortably in the crook of his other arm.

He knocked again and as he did the door slowly swung ajar. Instinctively Tim checked around the lock – the wood was intact, the paint undamaged, there was no sign of forced entry. Mrs Woosencraft liked to think she was capable but she was growing old and forgetful. He pushed the door open and stepped inside. A narrow hall ran straight ahead. Two closed doors were on the left, the stairs on the right.

‘Mrs Woosencraft? It’s Tim. Are you there?’

As soon as he stepped across the threshold Pedwar came alive in his arm, plumped to the floor and raced upstairs.

Apart from the certain fusty bouquet nineteen admittedly clean and well-behaved cats would bring to any small terraced house, the single word that best described Mrs Woosencraft’s home was comfortable. Odours of baking, polish, and laundry filled the air.

Tim shut the front door and made sure it was shut. He called out again. ‘Mrs Woosencraft?’

She was not in the front room, a space surprisingly free of clutter. A carriage clock ticked in the centre of the mantelpiece, two large brass candlesticks flanked the fireplace, an aspidistra grew in a blue chamber pot in the centre of the bay window.

A narrow display cabinet in the near corner was filled with a menagerie of small glass animals, some elegant, some as grotesque as those from a medieval bestiary – a giraffe, a turtle, an oddly-shaped duck, and many more. A massive black oak dining table with heavy barley-sugar legs, clawed feet and a plain top occupied the centre of the room. The table was very old and showed it. One of the legs had split along the grain, the corners of the top were rounded and worn, the surface scratched and chipped from numerous incidents across numberless years. Yet like the rest of the room it was spotless, dust free, and shone with the deep gloss of decades of beeswax polish. Apart from a silver and blue-glass condiment set[1] its surface was bare.

The clatter of oven trays came from the kitchen at the back of the house. Tim realised with some relief that Mrs Woosencraft was baking.

‘Hello, Mrs W. It’s Tim.’

Bore da[2],’ she called back. ‘Come on through.’

Tim went through to the back room. Every surface dripped cats. One sprawled on top of a decrepit upright piano and idly batted the hinged candle-holders to and fro. A knot of mixed varieties colonised the settee. Two black moggies with white feet circled each other round and round the fireguard. A young Siamese clung half-way up the green velvet curtains.

A winged armchair stood beside the fireside, front legs scratched to half their original width. Under the chair lay a tapestry bag filled with knitting-needles, yarn, crochet hooks and patterns.

Down in the kitchen was Mrs Woosencraft with a mixing bowl in her arm and flower-patterned apron over her sensible twin-set. Two more black cats loped and twined between her stockinged feet.

‘I brought Pedwar back,’ Tim said. ‘I woke up and he was on the bed.’

‘The little rascal! He’s such a wanderer, gadding about all over.’

‘Your front door was open, Mrs W.’

Mrs Woosencraft bent over the bowl, stirring vigorously. ‘Oh, I don’t think that was it. He’ll just jump out of the window and over the fence.’

Tim folded his arms. ‘It was open when I came in. Did you forget to shut it yesterday?’ He felt protective towards this little old lady from Wales. She baked him cakes, she was alone, she might be old enough to be his grandmother but she was also his friend. ‘Was it open all night?’

Mrs Woosencraft spooned the mix out of the bowl into a baking tray, pressing it into the corners. ‘I’m baking some flapjacks. We can have a cup of tea while they do.’ She slid the tray into the oven, slowly straightened up, pulled off her apron and handed it to Tim. ‘Hang that on the back of the door would you.’

When he turned back she was leaning on her walking stick and looking straight at him.

‘I’m perfectly safe in this house, bachgen. Nothing and nobody is going to come in here and trouble me.’

‘That’s much less likely if your front door is actually shut.’

Mrs Woosencraft herded him out of the kitchen. ‘You’ve plenty to worry about without me. My cats are better than any lock Go into the front room and I’ll bring you a cuppa and something to nibble.’

Tim walked through the back room and into the hall. ‘Not as good as a decent cylinder lock and two good bolts top and bottom. What can cats do against a full-grown–’

Out of nowhere a cat dashed under Tim’s feet. Then another was there, heading in the other direction. Tim wobbled on one leg and tried to find somewhere to put his foot that didn’t have a cat under it. He lost his balance and fell on his back through the doorway.

He looked up and saw a cat on the shelf over the door, nosing a heavy ornamental copper plate. The plate shunted forward and teetered on the edge. In his mind’s eye Tim saw it drop edge first across the bridge of his nose.

The cat pulled back and the plate settled back into position. Tim sighed with relief but before he could move a river of felines hurtled across him into the hall.

‘Agh!’ Tim exclaimed as the cats streamed across him. ‘Oof,’ as a heavy paw drove into his stomach. ‘Ouch!’ as another tested its claws on his chest. ‘Ptah!’ as a third filled his mouth with fur.

‘Did you say something?’ Mrs Woosencraft called from the kitchen.

‘Urgh. No, it doesn’t matter.’ Tim clambered to his feet, wiped his tongue on the back of his hand and tried not to think about where that tail had been. He peered through the banisters to the top of the stairs. Not a single cat was to be seen. He hurried into the front room while the coast was clear and sat at the table.

The steady tick of the carriage clock was soothing, and somehow timeless. The warm, enticing smell of fresh-baked flapjacks drifted from the kitchen. A moment later Tim heard the rattle of the tea-tray. Mrs Woosencraft appeared at the door, the tray tilting precariously in her hand.

‘Let me,’ Tim took the tray and put it on the table.

Mrs Woosencraft shuffled onto one of the chairs. ‘Honey flapjacks,’ she announced proudly, scrunching up her shoulders. ‘It’s a little early, but why not? Let’s live dangerously!’

Morning sunlight diffused through the net curtains behind the aspidistra. Tim watched Mrs Woosencraft pour the tea through a strainer.

‘Leaf is best,’ she said. ‘Those little bags don’t give a good brew.’

Tim bit into the soft and moist block of honeyed oats, still warm from the oven. ‘There’s nothing dangerous about your cooking, Mrs W, except perhaps to my waistline.’

‘Oh, just tuck in and enjoy them. You’re thin as a rake. Enjoy your food.’

Memories of his tumble in the hall faded as he sipped tea from a cup with a handle too small to put his little finger through.

Mrs Woosencraft sat back in her chair. The comfortable silence grew less so. The busy tick-tick-tock of the carriage clock loomed loud. She cleared her throat. ‘Tell me how you’re getting on with that new job that’s keeping you so busy.’

‘Not much luck so far.’ Tim washed the flapjack down with a mouthful of tea. ‘It’s missing, not stolen, and unreported too. An old Chrysler, probably worth a lot of money.’

Mrs Woosencraft’s cup rattled in the saucer as she put it on the table. ‘Well,’ she said a little loudly. ‘Don’t look at me. I know a fair bit about mending tractors but that’s it. Have you seen those three young ladies again?’

‘Yes.’ Tim winced at the memory. ‘The other two are aren’t as nice as Dolores.’

‘Dolores. Such an exotic name. I’m just plain old Dorothy.’

‘They’re American.’

‘Well, of course they are. That’s why they’ve lost an American car.’

Tim put down his cup. ‘It’s not their car, it belongs to their boyfriend.’

‘Their boyfriend?’ Mrs Woosencraft’s eyes grew round as saucers. ‘You don’t mean…?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Oh, that’s shock–king,’ Mrs Woosencraft said, her Carmarthen accent grown strong. ‘Shock–king.’

Tim wondered how he came to be drinking tea and gossiping like he was a little old lady himself. He helped himself to another flapjack.

Mrs Woosencraft shuffled her bottom on the chair. ‘I can hardly believe it. They were too well turned out to be such– Hussies! What did they want this time?’

Tim savoured the moment. ‘Actually, they brought me a clue.’

Mrs Woosencraft clapped her hands. ‘A clue. Well don’t keep me waiting, what is it?’

The handkerchief from Imelda Marchpane’s stockinged thigh was a little rumpled but still neatly folded. Tim dropped it into Mrs Woosencraft’s outstretched hand.

‘Oh, that’s lovely, that is.’ Mrs Woosencraft unfolded the material onto the table.

‘See the monogram,’ Tim said. ‘MK.’

Mrs Woosencraft went very still, her eyes fixed on the silk handkerchief. All colour drained from her face. Seconds passed and she remained motionless.

‘Mrs W.?’

Her left hand jerked, sending her teacup skittering across the table.

‘Mrs W?’ Tim jumped to his feet and took her hand. Her cold hand.

Dregs from the spilled cup pooled at the edge of the table and dripped onto the carpet.

‘Ah…’ Mrs Woosencraft’s eyes swam back into focus. She looked up at Tim. ‘Ah… Right then. Look, don’t worry,’ she said. ‘It’s just my angina.’ She pointed vaguely towards the mantelpiece with a shaking hand. ‘Yes, that’s what it is. Fetch my pills. They’re behind the clock.’

Tim fetched the small brown bottle and shook out a pill. Mrs Woosencraft washed it down with cold tea.

She massaged her left arm and gave Tim a lopsided smile. ‘It’s nothing to worry about, just pain from a tired old heart.’

‘I was really worried,’ Tim said.

Mrs Woosencraft grinned ghoulishly. ‘Not as worried as me. Every time it happens you can’t help thinking well, that’s it for me. Sayonara, auf weidersehen, merci beaucoup, and adios Tonto. I’ll be all right but I need to rest. It wears you out you see.’ Mrs Woosencraft poked the monogrammed handkerchief with her tea spoon. ‘Put that thing away before it gets dirty.’

Tim fetched a cloth from the kitchen and dried the spilt tea, tidied the things away and washed up. He took his time, he wanted to hang around as long as he could. As he was drying the crockery Mrs Woosencraft came through to the kitchen. She looked frail and exhausted.

‘How are you feeling?’

‘I’ll do.’ Mrs Woosencraft put her hand on the kitchen table and it was as if colour flowed up her arm and into her face. For an instant she looked younger. ‘Thank you for tidying up, but off you go now. I’m going to bed. A good sleep and I’ll be right as rain.’

Tim gently patted her shoulder. ‘Look after yourself.’

Mrs Woosencraft squeezed his hand without much strength. ‘Careful, boyo. There’s nitro-glycerine in my pills. Read the label if you don’t believe it. Hit me too hard and I might explode.’

#

Back in his office Tim ruminated on his problems. The easy one was deciding which of them was worst – the women in the red dresses. Disconcertingly assertive, they were unlike anybody he’d met before. Troy Jarglebaum would never have let Imelda break the door.

He always ended up comparing himself to Jarglebaum, a habit he’d tried to break many times.

He was starting to wish Dolores had never walked through his door.

And they’re not assertive, a small voice in his head insisted. They’re threatening, violent, strange and scary.

Next: Mrs Woosencraft, slowly going senile, and the missing cats.

Finally, the fact he had met someone with a room full of stray cats but didn’t know where she was. And she was not just someone.

He paced backwards and forwards then took a wide step to one side and continued. If he was going to walk in circles, he should at least try to spread the wear.

It was time to prioritise. It was time to make a new list.

Tim took out pen and paper, smoothed the sheet, uncapped the pen and held it poised. He drew a line down the middle of the paper. Lists always worked when decisions were required. All you needed to do was write the choices to be made in the two columns, add them up and the column with the highest number was the right way to go.

A moment passed. Doubt clouded Tim’s resolve. Perhaps a list wasn’t the best way forward. He noticed the flies were back under the lampshade. They knew what they had to do and they got on with it. Jarglebaum would know what to do too. It might be the right thing, but he always did something.

Tim had a flashback to his time with the police, stuck at his desk, unable to decide how to progress his case load. It wasn’t the job that was at fault, leaving the police had solved nothing. He was still who he was, indecisive, a dreamer, someone who could not make up his mind.

Almost by itself Tim’s hand moved across the paper and wrote:

Find the car.

Tim stared at the three words.

It would be the easiest thing in the world to call Jarglebaum. Troy would know people who knew people who knew. Already Tim could see his old partner’s self-satisfied grin grow wider and wider as he listened to Tim’s pleading.

You’d make me beg, you smug bastard, Tim thought.

No way, it was not going to happen. There were other people he could talk to, other options to try.

He spent the entire day making calls. People said you could not prove a negative but he felt he was coming close. No body shop had anything like the Chrysler in for repair, no garage for maintenance. The breakers yards responded with a laughing ‘You what, mate?’ and simply hung up. The owners club was a long shot that turned out to be too long when it quickly became obvious it was aimed not unreasonably at owners in the USA.

There was one last hope. Tim picked up the phone again and called the Brighton Council dumped-car hotline.

For an hour he endured piped music of mind-numbing yet foot-tapping inanity as he was passed from department to department in a great circle that eventually returned him to the person who originally answered his call. Finally he was connected to the right department where, after he convinced someone called ‘Stu’ that he did not want to report an abandoned vehicle, own one, or know a neighbour who had one, he discovered that nothing approaching the description of a large, old, black Chrysler had been included in the rusty hulks, burned-out chassis and stripped wrecks they had towed away in the past month.

‘Nearest we got was a white Roller on the beach last year.’

‘Really?’

‘Straight up.’

‘Where did it come from?’

‘Some greengrocer in Billericay.’

On the verge of asking what happened to it Tim realised he did not actually care. He put the receiver back in the cradle and closed his eyes. He had a headache like a clamp across his temples, his left ear burned hot from being pressed flat against his head by hours of phone calls. He drank a glass of water and stared bleakly through the window. He had tried his best and he had achieved nothing. Troy Jarglebaum waited, a middle-aged nemesis in a nylon shirt.

When you were out of options you called the man. For Tim that man was Derek ‘Persistent’ Smith. Less fixer than walking encyclopaedia, more wild-card than ace of trumps, Smith was an unconventional and original man. Bright and observant in ways most people were not he could be both slow on the uptake and capable of vast leaps of intuition. Tim felt at ease with some forms of the unconventional and Smith was several of them. Thorough in his methods, Smith was nothing if not determined. Some might even say he was unstoppable. He had helped Tim before, there was a very good chance he could do so now.

Smith’s loud voice came on the line. ‘Greetings, earthling.’

‘This is Tim Wassiter. I’ve some work if you’re interested.’

‘Is it a mystery?’

‘Yes, it is.’

‘Interested.’

‘The usual place. Half an hour?’

‘Agreed.’

The usual place was the Bat and Ball, exactly where Tim wanted to be. He shrugged into his old leather jacket and went to the pub.

#

‘A motor car registered in Finland won’t have a record with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority.’

‘I know.’ Tim took a pull on his pint. With Smith patience was required.

Smith didn’t talk, he boomed. His round, ruddy face beamed into the middle distance under copper-red curls tamed by a fortnightly short back and sides. His blue fleece was zipped up to his neck and under it, Tim knew, his tieless shirt would be buttoned to the collar. Smith’s glass of orange juice sat neatly centred on the beer mat, he sat on his hands.

‘The local DVLA office is at Mocatta House. Head office is in Swansea. From the train station take the number 36 bus–’

The locals at the Bat and Ball were used to Smith and accepted his loud voice, oblivious manner and seemingly endless well of trivia with good humour and protective affection. They gave him space.

‘How much is the fare?’ Tim said.

Persistent stopped in mid flow, smiled an angelic smile and proclaimed, ‘I’m going to give you a bunch of fives.’

That didn’t worry Tim one bit. ‘Then you won’t get paid.’

‘I’ll squish you flat and steal it away.’

‘I didn’t bring the money.’

‘D’oh! You always say that.’ Smith pulled his hand out from under his heavy buttocks and formed it into a mouth.

‘He always says that,’ the Hand repeated in higher-pitched voice.

‘Smith, what do you know about cars?’ Tim said.

‘What sort of cars?’

‘The Chrysler Imperial Eight Airflow.’

‘He means an Airflow Chrysler Imperial Eight,’ the Hand said.

‘Put the hand away, Smith,’ Tim said patiently.

‘I can help,’ the Hand said. ‘Which year?’

‘I’m serious.’

A frown creased Smith’s smooth brow. ‘Are we talking turkey?’

‘Yes, we’re talking turkey.’

Smith’s face suffused with excited wonder. ‘Goodbye,’ he told the Hand and it disappeared beneath his backside.

‘The year is 1934. Colour, black–’

‘They’re all black,’ Smith said dismissively. ‘Except the white ones.’

‘Finnish plates.’

‘It’s got Finland plates.’ Smith rocked happily on his hands, there was nothing he liked more than facts. ‘It’s black. It’s from Finland, 1934. A missing vehicle, a mystery vehicle. Who shall find it for you?’

‘I thought you might.’

‘That’s Good Thinking. I will do my very best to find it for you.’

‘That’s right. You’re good at this sort of thing.’

‘I shall find it for you and then I will get paid–?’ Smith looked expectantly at Tim.

‘Fifty pounds a day.’

Smith beamed happily. ‘Where is the car?’

Tim had to laugh. ‘I don’t know. It’s a missing car, that’s why I– ’ He realised what Smith meant. ‘Somewhere in Brighton.’

Smith blew out his cheeks in relief. ‘Phew, that narrows it down.’ He looked absently at his drink and said, ‘I’m good at this sort of thing.’ He drained the glass and strode from the pub leaving the door wide open.

To be continued…

~

[1] A full set, including a mustard pot and spoon, not one of those half-arsed modern things where the salt never comes out.

[2] Good morning.


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