PONDHOPPER : NUMBER TEN
Having just gone through an epic battle, I was exhausted. No matter that the real encounter had taken place decades earlier, its dramatic effect was in my view undiminished. Let me enlarge. To my left, on the nearside corner of my desk, were three books on the only board game that has ever interested me. One of the volumes was a great effort entitled ‘The Chess Companion’, by Irving Chernev. Being too cheap to buy the works, I’d borrowed them from the library. Sorry, boys, I should have sprung for the price of all three and was ashamed. I still haven’t forked out, and remain guilt-ridden.
Among other delights, Chernev’s book presented some remarkable games, and included an effort to select the greatest of all battles. As an aficionado, I had to agree with the author’s verdict that the tussle between Alekhine and Bogolyubov, which took place at Hastings, England, in 1922 – would be hard to beat. There have been many examples of brilliancies in which one party trounced the other, but to anyone seeking a titanic struggle, let me recommend this breathtaker.
I have established over the years that the chess world is not noted for producing modest people. To take the two I’ve just mentioned, there was an incident when Alekhine was asked to produce his passport at some border post. His response: “I need no passport. I am Alekhine.” His opponent in the above-mentioned clash once said: “When I am white, I win because I am white, and when I am black, I win because I am Bogolyubov.” So, you’ll see how reticent these two lads were.
You will probably also gather that I was not too busy at the time. It was four o’clock on a Monday afternoon and I was thinking of playing the game over again, when I had a visitor. He didn’t waste time – the outer door had still not swung shut when the inner one opened, no knock. It occurred to me that I might consider some intermediate obstacle – a barbed wire entanglement, perhaps. Well, big business people talk about barriers to entry, don’t they? I suppose that’s different.
The incomer was a man in, I guessed, his late thirties. To be honest, at first sight I didn’t like anything about him. He was around five-ten, wearing light-blue overalls and heavy dark-brown workboots. He had an unruly mop of black hair – no headgear – and was burly, with wide shoulders and a chest I that reckoned was at least forty-five inches, unexpanded. He also had a straggly black moustache. Everything about him exuded aggression. His face was pock-marked from what I imagined was the residue of acne. He was sweating a little and breathing heavily, and even at a distance of six feet, didn’t smell too good.
“Don Burrows,” he grunted.
Was that an introduction, or a job description? Maybe of a tunneller? You might admit it was susceptible of more than one interpretation. Having summoned immediate hostility toward this character, I went for obtuse. “Does he?” I said.
“You said Don Burrows. Are you telling me who you are, or what somebody does for a living?”
He stepped up to the desk, leaned across and glared at me. From that range, I liked him even less than before. “You some kinda wise guy?” he growled.
“Wisdom is relative,” I said. “Compared with some people, I’m quite sagacious. I don’t think I’d come out too well against Aristotle or Descartes.”
“Man, you got a funny way of talking,” he said.
“I work at it,” I replied. “Did you want something?”
He stood back, seeming to simmer down slightly, which is to say I couldn’t quite see smoke coming out of his ears. “Like I told you,” he said, “I’m Don Burrows. I drive a truck for Povey’s Animal Feeds.”
“Ah,” I said, “that explains it.”
I gave him a knowing smile. “Just one of my little ways,” I said. “I like to guess people’s occupations. You know, like the man at 221B, Baker Street.” I don’t know why I threw in that last bit, as it seemed to me unlikely that Mr Burrows would be familiar with the address of Conan Doyle’s master sleuth. He shrugged, evidently not wanting an explanation of my comment. Just as well, since in my prevailing mood I didn’t have one that wasn’t offensive, didactic or both.
He leaned over the desk again, giving me a whiff of breath which did nothing to help his cause. In fairness to him, the offending smell was of second-hand onions, not booze. “Say, are you really a detective?”
“Yes, I am. At times I detect like mad. Then again, I have my off-days. Sometimes I couldn’t detect an earthquake from the epicentre.” At that point, it occurred to me that my flippancy, though entertaining me, wasn’t doing a lot for this budding relationship. After all, the man might turn out to be a client – such people had been known to call occasionally. Bearing that in mind, I also thought of the state of my in-tray, which was as empty as an election promise, and of the pending file, in the same condition. I wondered how a truthful advert offering my services would read. For all your detecting needs try Cyril Potts. He’s uncouth, snotty and aggressive, but drop in anyway. You might get lucky. Yes, that seemed about right.
I chastised myself silently for being a lousy salesman and for coming up short in the manners department. True, this fellow gave indications of oafishness, but maybe he knew no better, while I did. It was time for a change of tack. “Look, Mr Burrows,” I said, “obviously we’re both feeling cantankerous. Why don’t you take a seat? Let’s pretend the last two minutes didn’t happen and maybe we can get along.”
“Okay,” he said, with a big sigh. He thudded down. “I guess maybe I am a little upset. It’s on account of my wife.”
“Okay,” I said. “Relax and tell me about it.”
“All right if I smoke?” he said. I nodded, digging an ashtray from a drawer and pushing it his way. He offered me a cigarette which I declined, then he lit up and stretched back, sighing. “She’s been acting real queer lately.”
“She goes out alone, daytime. She never did that before.”
“What’s so odd?” I said. “I mean, she’s a grown woman, right? Why shouldn’t she go out?” I could have answered that myself. Being cooped up with this man might not have been an undiluted pleasure. Pipe, slippers and knitting were not the first words that came to mind.
“Well, it’s like this. She’s thirty-six. We’ve been married for twelve years. We don’t have children and we never did anything separate before. Then it started around two months back. All of a sudden, she took to going out in the afternoons and doing the shopping on her own. We always did that together, evenings or weekends. I asked her about it and she said she just wanted a little variety.” Then he seemed to get quite animated. “Dammit, Cyril . . . okay if I call you that?” I nodded, waving him on. “I’m a decent guy, right? I mean, I provide and all that. Okay, I work hard and maybe I get tired. That’s normal, isn’t it?”
Not having experienced marital bliss or strife, I didn’t know what, if anything, was normal, but had no intention of letting on. “It sounds sort of average,” I said. “Can you pinpoint anything that might have been a catalyst?”
“A what?” Again, I should have known better. “I mean, can you think of an incident that might have caused this change in your wife’s behaviour?”
“No, I can’t – and don’t think I haven’t tried. She’s just gone off the rails.”
“You said that you’d spoken with her. Did you follow up?”
Now he became acutely uncomfortable, twisting his hands and fiddling with his fingers, generating a tension that crossed the desk in waves. Amazingly, he kept control of his cigarette. “We don’t talk a lot,” he said. “I did mention it again, just one time. Same result. She won’t say anything except what I told you.”
I sensed that I was in danger of being dragged into an advisory role for which I felt unsuited. Still, one must try. “Look, Don,” I said – all boys together now – “I’m no expert in these matters, but in my line of work, psychology crops up frequently. I’ve noticed that women often react pretty sharply to what men might consider trivial incidents. I could tell you a few tales that might curl your eyeballs.” This was pure drivel, as I couldn’t have done anything of the sort, but was certain Don wouldn’t pursue it. “Are you quite sure you didn’t do or say some little thing recently that might have started things off?”
He shrugged again. “None that I can think of, Cyril. And believe me, I’ve tried. I can’t figure it. We never paint the town - I’m mostly too tuckered out for that, and I don’t go for pill-popping to freshen me up. Maybe it’s just that two people get on top of one another after a while.”
I knew about the dangers of revising a first opinion of any new acquaintance, but had to concede that since he’d cooled off, Don Burrows was making a less unfavourable impression on me than he had at the beginning. Maybe he’d been too worked up when he arrived. And there was no law that said he had to be the essence of urbanity. Also, he’d referred to children rather than kids, the latter term being anathema to me. “I think I’ve got the idea, Don,” I said. “I’ve a lot on, but as it happens, I have a window right now.” Window indeed. I had Crystal Palace. “A couple of days might do it.”
We went into the matter of my fees, in which respect he surprised me by retaining his relative equanimity. “I get it,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t work, so you have to make up for it.” I was . . . well . . . appreciative. He went on: “I’m not a rich man, Cyril, but I might be able to go for three or four days. If that isn’t enough, we’ll talk again.”
I noted his address – a decent enough part of town. “What about a description, or maybe a photo?” I said.
He scratched his cheek. “I never thought about a picture, but you won’t get her wrong. She’s five-seven and a blonde – I think they call it ash. Kinda normal build, dresses smart, carries herself good and walks fast. Her name’s Helen. That do?”
Well, it would have to. I agreed to look into the matter, starting early the next day – don’t forget, I was still into Alekhine v Bogolyubov, so my evening was booked and anyway, Burrows had said enough to indicate that night work would be pointless.
The following morning I called at the office to check my mail, all junk. By ten a.m. I was on duty, with thermos flask and sandwiches – tuna, in case you’re interested. The Burrows lived in a two-storey detached house of average size. A small white hatchback was parked in the driveway.
Shortly after one in the afternoon, a woman emerged from the house. I sneaked a look through my pocket field glasses. They weren’t top-drawer stuff, but good enough to show me that I was looking at Helen Burrows. The height was about right, as was the striking hair. She wore a pale green dress, plain except for an open white collar. Her shoes were also green, with heels of medium height, and she carried a tan leather handbag. As she walked to the car, I noted that my client was right about her carriage and movements, respectively ramrod straight and brisk. She set out and I followed.
Helen drove to the middle of town and parked, making a better job of it than I did – some people are so sophisticated. I had to hurry to see her walk down a side-street, push open a door and disappear. I moved into casual mode, sauntering along to where she’d vanished. There was a brass plaque on the door, proclaiming the place Carrie’s Calisthenics. So, a workout club. Seemed innocent enough.
I skulked, which isn’t as easy as it might seem – surveillance work can be hard on the concentration. It’s like listening to a weather forecast, in that one starts as keen as mustard, but the attention span is limited. I mean, while they’re harping on about what’s already happened, one loses interest in the upcoming scenario. I kept slipping away from and back onto the alert, but was in watchful mode when Helen left the place an hour later. Now I got a better look – and what an eyeful. On purely technical grounds, Don Burrows’ description was accurate, but his bald word-sketch was well short of doing justice to his wife. If nothing else, this commission was going to be a visual delight.
I followed Helen to the nearest supermarket where she stocked up with groceries, then tailed her home. I hung around until Don arrived. Time to call it a day. Driving back to my place, I entertained myself with the thought that Helen looked exactly like my long-standing concept of a secretary; a dazzling helper and confidante, who would swap witty banter with me as we went through the accounts. Persiflage is good for you. So far, I couldn’t afford such a luxury – I could barely afford myself.
After replaying the mighty chess joust, I finished a novel I’d started earlier. As usual, the West Coast PI went nonchalantly through hell and high water to get his man. How did they do it? I mean, those chaps managed to maintain their sang-froid, staying laconic, yet high-powered. It humbled me, until I remembered that I was in the land of make-believe. Hah, buster, I thought, try it in real life.
Wednesday morning, I again went through the near-mindless ritual of checking the postal offerings, then drove off to resume the pleasanter task of observing Helen Burrows. I could hardly believe that I was being paid for this. I’d have been happy to watch her anytime, gratis. Here, you might like to know that I’d changed from tuna to cheese. This time, Helen wore a dark-red blouse, cream skirt and white shoes, again with medium heels. She carried a different handbag, about the same shade as the skirt. The day was largely a re-run of the one before – gym club, shopping at the same place, then back home. I seemed to detect a fleeting glance my way from the lady as she left her last port of call.
With the exception of another outfit – Helen’s latest choice being a light-blue sweater and black pleated skirt, black shoes and the tan handbag – Thursday started the same way again; exercise, followed by the supermarket run. Then there was a change. My new icon dumped her purchases into the little car. This time she had a trolley, which she returned to the bay, then she went over to the coffee shop, joining another, older woman, grey-haired and dressed in a smart two-piece tweedy costume in beige, with a silky blouse of the about the same shade. The two talked for half an hour, then Helen stood, kissed her companion and left. The other woman stayed put.
I was, I’m not proud to say, struggling to remain alert as Helen swept along. To get to her vehicle, she had to pass mine. She did her stuff well. Walking quickly, head high, she was seemingly about to pass straight across my line of vision when she turned abruptly and headed my way. There was no point in any attempt at dissimulation – she was upon me too quickly. “Good afternoon, Mr Potts,” she said. The voice was low and calm, with a touch of pseudo-sweetness that I feared boded no good for me.
What does one do? “Good afternoon ma’am,” I replied. “You seem to have the advantage.”
“Hardly,” she said, “but if you wish to avoid detection, you’d be better off with an invisible car. It happens that one of my classmates at the gym is with the vehicle licensing people. When I noticed you were following me – incidentally, that wasn’t difficult – I asked her to go out by the back door and check your number plates. So, while you were loitering in the street yesterday – something else you didn’t do very well – she established your identity.”
The game was up. Naturally, I felt obliged to wriggle, however unconvincingly. “Would you believe I’m a distant admirer?” I said.
“No, I wouldn’t. I will not ask about the purpose of your behaviour, as you’ve doubtless prepared some lie. Now, will it help if I tell you that you can switch off your meter? I’m going straight home. Please call there again tomorrow morning. Ten o’clock, shall we say?”
Ah, Potts, you old slyboots. There’s no getting the better of you, is there? It was humiliating, but I hoped I was professional enough to accept the odd reverse. If only I’d been in funds and Helen Burrows had been seeking a job, she might have fulfilled that secretarial role I mentioned – except that being clearly smarter than me, she would most likely have taken over the agency. Life can be so trying.
Though bruised, I was game to continue the exchange, but Helen wasn’t. After injecting her barbs, she stalked to her car and drove off. I followed, as soon as I’d recovered enough composure to handle my charger.
On Friday morning I popped into the office at 9.25 on the dot. Half an hour later I was still there, pondering on whether I should contact Don Burrows when he forestalled me by calling in. He was a changed man. Completely clean-shaven and altogether smarter-looking than before, though I noted a plaster on his forehead. In contrast to his first appearance, he seemed subdued. Without waiting for an invitation, he plonked himself onto a chair. “Have a pew, Don,” I said, belatedly. “You seem like a man with news.”
He passed a hand over his head. “You can say that again,” he said. “We blew it, Cyril.”
I was relieved about the ‘we’ part. In my book, I’d blown it single-handed, but Don didn’t seem to see it that way. If he wanted to take some of the responsibility, that was all right with me. “You’d better bring me up to date,” I said.
Don fished out a cigarette, offered me the pack, accepted my head-shake and lit up. “We had it out last night,” he said. “In a way, you’ve been a big help.”
I didn’t see how, but was more than happy go along with him. “I think I can see that,” I said, “but maybe you’d better give me the details.” Details be damned. I was completely bemused.
He gave me a rueful grin. “She was all over me last night,” he said. “I had to admit I’d got you to check up on her. She was real flattered. Said it was the first time since we got married that I’d shown some genuine interest.”
“Yes,” I said. “I had a suspicion that something like that might happen.” Another monstrous lie. Goebbels, are you listening? “But what about the injury?”
He laughed. “That doesn’t matter,” he said. “Everything’s hunky-dory now. Helen just got a little upset. You’ll laugh. She beaned me with a frying pan – cast iron, too. I guess I deserved it.” He seemed quite proud of his wound. “ She told me I should get rid of the moustache. Said it made me look like a gangster.”
Having been given permission, I did laugh. “If you don’t mind my saying so, I’m inclined to agree with Helen about the facial adornment. You look better without it. But why the fracas?”
He gave me the upturned palms. “Was just like you said. One of those little things. Seems I made a crack about her weight a couple of months ago. Since then, she’s been trimming back. That’s why she changed her routine. Hell, dames take things serious, don’t they?”
“Yes, Don,” I said. “Sometimes they do.”
* * *