It had been a hard night, and I was ready to go home. I had spent my shift checking off the news pages of the morning paper where I worked. Some of my mates were talking about going for a drink, but I knew if I hurried up, and nobody famous died, I could send third edition to press and get to Euston just in time for the last train home. This meant that I would get my first decent sleep in a week, and that I would wake up in my own bed and not on somebody’s couch. And, it would be nice to see my husband.
So I went home. I have to say here that we live way out in the country in what was once a large house, surrounded by fields. The house has been divided into three and, although the neighbours on one side are perfectly normal, you couldn’t have said the same for our other neighbour, Mr P. He was, as far as we could make out, a retired optician and part-time composer, who spent most of his time writing letters to the Times in green ink and was only ever seen in his pyjamas. Although he did wear a dressing gown when he drove to the village in his rusting Ford Escort.
Anyway there we were, husband and I, a few hours later, snoozing away in bed, when bang! bang! bang! I came to rather fuzzily. Bang! Wtf? It sounded like a gun. Some crazed extra from Deliverance was sneaking up the drive with a gun. Suppose they were going to come in and rob us? Or worse, play the banjo? There was only one thing to do. I woke my husband.
‘There’s somebody outside,’ I said. ‘With a gun.’
Husband took some waking up and when he did, he looked at me blearily. ‘A gun?’
‘Shots, I heard shots. Somebody’s outside with a gun.’
At this point my husband did something really, really brave. ‘All right,’ he said rather sleepily. ‘I’ll go and have a look.’ And he got up, and went.
Long minutes passed and I began to drift off. Maybe I’d dreamt the bangs, because after all, I had just finished a 60-hour week, and it did seem like some remnant of a crime story that had maybe stuck in my head. There was no noise. Nobody was shouting, ‘Give us the telly, you gurt dollop, or we’ll tie you naked to a tree.’
Steve came back upstairs. ‘It’s all right,’ he said, looking rather dazed. ‘It’s not a gunman. It’s a trapeze artist. His car’s exploded and he set fire to his trousers.’ He paused. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
I opened my eyes and stared at him. ‘You what?’
‘Tea,’ he said. ‘Do you want a cup? Carmela and I are having one. Nice girl. She’s lost all her clothes, but she managed to keep hold of her handbag. Not like her twit boyfriend. Can’t get any sense out of him at all. His dad’s in Australia, you know. ’
I was definitely dreaming. I think I must have lain back at that point and closed my eyes again, because the next thing I remember is Steve coming back with the promised cup of tea.
‘Here you go,’ he said. ‘The fire brigade are here. It’s a huge blaze. They’re worried it’ll set fire to the yew tree, and then Mr Panting’s garage will go up. Amazing flames. Look.’ And he drew back the curtain, and I stared open mouthed at a column of flame about 20 feet high. ‘Have we got any blankets?’ said Steve. ‘Because Carmela’s getting a bit nippy.’
Thinking back, I suppose I should have got up, but my brain wasn’t up to it. I put the empty mug on the bedside table and went straight back to sleep. In the morning, I came downstairs and there, at the kitchen table, was a glum-looking young bloke with a ginger beard, and a beautiful dark haired girl, wrapped in a blanket, who kept laying her hand on his arm and talking to him softly in Spanish. Steve was frying bacon. Rather too cheerfully, I thought.
It didn’t take long to get the facts. The lad was indeed a trapeze artist and he lived with his dad in Muswell Hill. He had got a gig performing at some fete at a stately home near us. His dad had gone on a business trip to Australia, leaving strict instructions that son was not to touch his brand new car. Son, in order to impress girlfriend had ignored dad, and set out in car for stately home. Unfortunately, after about 80 miles he decided he needed a kip, so had driven straight into the field next to us and, being a city boy, even though he had six acres to choose from, had to park right next to our garden wall; for company, I suppose. While girlfriend put up the tent, the lad sat in the car, got out his camping gaz stove and held it upside down so it dripped fuel all over his trousers and soaked the car seats. Then, he lit the stove. In the car. He then spent the next five minutes rolling around the field with his trousers on fire, while his car lit up the night sky. The bangs I had heard were the tyres exploding.
So that was almost it really. We gave the boy who, amazingly, was hardly singed, a pair of Steve’s old trousers. (Carmela, it should be said, had the rather scanty clothes she stood up in, but her luggage was burnt.) We took them to the stately home (and no offer of a free ticket for the show, which I thought was rather poor form) and left them there. When the remains of the car cooled, Steve and the farmer up the road cleared the mess.
It was a few days before Steve thought to tell me about Mr Panting. Apparently, while the firemen were struggling to stop the blaze spreading to our trees, he had come out of his house to see the fun. Fully dressed, mind. At 4am. Cavalry twill trousers, tweed jacket, and a cravat. He stared at the commotion for a while and then beckoned to Steve. ‘Do you think you could come and have a look at my car? While we’ve got all this light? I’m not sure it’s running correctly.’
This post was prompted by one from pieterk515 about burglar alarms. Thanks Pieter.
My next door neighbour was, I think, a fully paid up member of that dying breed – the British eccentric. Every morning, Mr P.,as I shall call him, came out of his decaying house (or his gentleman’s residence, as he liked torefer to it) and stood, in his pyjamas and dressing gown on his front lawn ready to torment the dog next door. This dog, a friendly enough Jack Russell, belonged to Vi, a sturdy widow, who had no time for Mr P. Not surprising, really, given that as soon as Mr P spied the dog he would start skipping up and down, waving his walking stick and hooting loudly. The dog, Muffy by name, after a second of startled staring, would then hurl herself at the fence, barking and howling with increasing frenzy, until Vi came out to get her.
‘I keep telling you Mr P, you’re driving my dog mad! You’re not to do this!’ said Vi, gathering the squirming dog into her arms, and glaring at our neighbour.
But Mr P would simply lean on his walking stick, look at her kindly and say, ‘It has to be done, Mrs Dillon. Has to be done. I’m training her to attack burglars.’
Which was all very well until the day he had to call on Vi, and Muffy bit him in the leg.