HE was a stout man, round-backed, bent over the papers on his office desk. A table lamp threw a shadow on the wall behind him.
It was dusk.
Outside he could hear the grating gears of the evening traffic, as cars and works vans laboured up the hill. The rest of the old laundry-shed was in semi-darkness.
Behind him, the secretary’s empty desk marked the limit of the lamp-span. A typewriter sat squarely on its rubber mat, the ranked keys a glitter of reflected light. A pile of invoices was stacked next to the machine, ready to be sent out on Monday morning.
His dog, Jill, made a yawning sound as she stretched herself out underneath his chair. She was a hysterical creature. All his life, he had put his faith in cross-breeds, and he would never buy another pedigree again. A breath of wind would panic her, so she would run in mad zig-zags, chasing her own fear. A sudden noise would have her snarling round at empty air.
Now, she was grumbling to herself, restless and liverish, wanting to get out of the old, converted workhouse and out into the autumn night. But she was his dog, not his wife. He had things to do, and she would have to wait.
It was five years since Albert Gaunt had been elected to the town council, and this year, if he was lucky enough, and clever enough, he might be Mayor.
It was all a matter of ground work. Who was for him, and who was against him. Those who were ‘for’ he could discount for the time being. It was his opponents that he needed to deal with. And like councillors everywhere, they were motivated only periodically by the common good. They were business men, in the main, and it was a delicate matter, working out who would be for what, and why, and how he could appeal to their self interest. Albert couldn’t be all things to men, and nor would he want to be. His aim was to be sufficiently useful to a sufficient number.
He was perusing the treasurer’s report of the local plumbing magnate, Harry Beasley, when he heard it. A tearing, grinding noise, like an iceberg ripping into the side of an ocean liner. Jill, ever alert to the alarming and the uncanny, ran headlong out of the room, yapping frenziedly, and skittered up the staircase to the upper floor, where the girls’ dormitory used to be. Albert used it for storage now. His business was office supplies. Where once young unmarried girls had slept in iron bedsteads, he now kept cardboard boxes full of carbon paper and ink pots and HB pencils. He paused for a second, looking upwards at the ceiling. She was surely a most skittish creature.
‘Jill!’ he called. ‘Jill, come back here!’
The delivery boys complained about the upstairs room sometimes. Timmy Ellis, who would try anything for an easy life, refused to go in there at all. Albert, being rational, and solid, and a man who wore the same braces his father wore, had never heard such nonsense. Never heard such…
There it was again, only this time Jill was not so much barking as screaming. Almost a human sound. He could fancy there were words inside that noise, just as he used to imagine that clouds had faces when he was a boy. He pushed his chair back and hurried from the room. When he reached the staircase, he climbed it two steps at a time.
The old dormitory was dark. He flicked at the light-switch, and the single bulb in the centre of the room came on. Boxes were piled everywhere, in tidy cardboard columns. Halfway across the room was an iron divider, like a great sliding door, which split the room into two.
Rust had welded it into one place so it was wedged half open, and his boys would squeeze through the gap to put boxes on the other side.
(Cont. next column)