Published as part of a collection by Howling Press and presented with some commentary by the editor, Herbert S. Trundlewhip
‘Rules are rules, and that is that.’
That’s the last thing Teddy said before he left us. We ー that is to say, Rupert, Tammy and I ーwere still practically children without the faintest idea of how to keep house, but the idea of spending a week in Margate, unfettered by parents and with a large Georgian house to ourselves, was enough to send a hasty ‘yes stop please stop’ over the telegram. We rattled down on the train the following day, leather cases in hand.
Teddy, like all grown-ups, was fond of house rules, and he spared no time reciting them as he led us through that beautiful, dark hollow of an old brick abode. The satin curtains of the frontispiece window were to be drawn every night at seven; lantern oil was to be conserved wherever possible; the garden was to be watered once every two days with a little green watering can kept by the porch; and the greenhouse was strictly off-limits.
‘Why?’ Rupert, a keen horticulturist, had asked on this latter point.
‘Because rules are rules,’ said Teddy with a satirical grin. ‘And that is that.’
How old and fusty Teddy had grown! Scarcely four years ahead of us and already he was popping up to London every two weeks for some business engagement or other. Soon, he was out of the door, onto the train, and chugging across Whitstable, Ramsgate, and the rest of the way to London. Rupert, Tammy and I sat in three thick chairs looking across the drawing room, rulers of that newfound land. †
There is a special kind of anticipation one feels when staying in a room that is not his or her own; a sense of imminent transgression which would be quite unlikely at home, but which in another man’s property feels almost inevitable. We had sat there brooding on this idea for some time without any idea of how to realise it.
‘Let’s see what the jammy sod keeps in here,’ said Rupert suddenly, digging through a wooden box beside him before producing some silver-looking pieces.
‘Dosh?’ said Tammy and I at once, our eyes lighting up.
‘‘Fraid not.’ He dumped them back into the box. ‘Tookaninny tokens.’‡
‘Rot,’ I said, leaning back in the chair with a cigarette. I’d only taken a couple of puffs of the thing before the smoke went down the wrong hole and I spluttered. Rupert burst out laughing.
‘You ought to be more careful,’ said Tammy, crossing her legs and shooting me a sly look. ‘You’re still a boy, you know. You shouldn’t be smoking those things.’
‘Humbug,’ I said as I puffed tenaciously on the offending stick. ‘My lungs are simply adapting.’
Tammy said nothing in return but continued to look at me under those dark, condescending lashes.
‘Right,’ said Rupert suddenly, leaping out of his chair. ‘Well, since Teddy’s locked the bally greenhouse shut, I suppose we’d better go into town if we want anything to eat. There’s nothing at all in the cupboards; at least nothing to my taste.’
‘Capital idea,’ I said, relieved for an excuse to stub my cigarette out. ‘We’ll leave immediately. Tammy, you stay here and keep fort.’
‘If you say so,’ she returned idly, as she retrieved my cigarette from the ashtray.
Rupert and I were scarcely past the old medieval gatehouse at the foot of the market when a malodorous tramp hobbled up and held out his grubby hands toward us.
‘Watch this,’ said Rupert, and tossed the beggar a coin.
The tramp caught it, jumped several feet in the air, and whooped loudly.
‘Whoopidie! Whoopiday! Whoop Whoop whoop!’
A moment later, he dashed off through the marketplace and was lost among the stalls.
‘How on earth did you know he was one of them, Rupert?’
‘I can spot them easy. It’s all around the eyes,’ he said, pushing up his wireframe glasses.§
We wandered around the farmer’s market for half an hour or so without any immediate notion of buying anything. Rupert and I were both more interested in taking in the smells of fresh vegetables, breads and ales that were so alien to us city lads. An atmosphere of abundance; that’s the best way I could describe it. Not one that smacked of indulgence, mind, but a wholesome kind of plentifulness. A sense that you were provided for; that the world beyond that medieval gatehouse scarcely existed and that, if it did, it could never breach those tough old stone walls. I closed my eyes and took in a deep lungful of that unusually pure air.
‘You’re a tough old lad, ain’tcha?’ An old butcher was calling out to me. ‘A lad like you looks as if he might be a prop on the rugby team am I right?’ he asked with a gummy grin.
‘I played a bit of rugger at the old school, yes,’ I said.
‘I knew it! I can always spot a prop when I see one. It’s in the shoulders. Nice, wide shoulders.’
He had me now.
‘Big lad like you needs some meat to keep him strong,’ he said. ‘Lamb shank ought to do ya. Fresh out the field. I killed her myself. Half a shilling per pound; keeps you full of vigour.’
He slapped the meat on his stall and let his hand rest there. Hairy palms. I saw a small, white creature wriggling around his pinkie finger. He was smiling at me, hard with yellow teeth.
‘How about you, lad?’ he said, turning his attention to Rupert. ‘You a sporting man?’
Rupert, decidedly not a sporting man, only shook his head. He had spotted the creature too and was having some trouble looking away.
‘Come on,’ I said, pulling him away by the arm.
The house was in a state of disarray when we returned. Tammy had apparently grown bored and taken to looting the house as a means to entertain herself. The carpet was strewn with all manner of items, apparently procured from the overhanging drawers.
‘You’ve certainly made a mess,’ said Rupert, placing a rather disappointing bag of market food on the oak table.
‘Is that really all?’ exclaimed Tammy. ‘We can’t possibly live on that for a whole week!’
She was right. All we had was a loaf of bread, a few pounds of red leicester and some carrots.
‘It’s all we could afford with the money we brought down from London,’ I said as I sunk into the armchair.
‘No meat?’ she whined.
I shook my head. Rupert was inspecting an item on the floor with some interest.
‘Look at this,’ he said, holding the small item up. It was a wooden box. He cracked it open to reveal some thin metal objects tucked inside. ‘A pickset,’ he said. ‘We can use this to unlock the greenhouse.’
‘Capital!’ I said, before catching myself. ‘But ? won’t Teddy be awfully upset with us? He did say it was strictly off-limits.’ Tammy tittered at this remark and I shot her a rotten look.
‘Yes, but he also left us alone in his house without any bloody food,’ said Rupert.
A period of thick silence passed between us.
‘You’re right, I suppose.’
‘Of course I am,’ he said. ‘Right then, it’s settled. We’ll crack open the greenhouse this evening and pinch a few tomatoes. Are we agreed?’
‘It’s a good thing you left these things lying around, Tammy,’ he said, shaking the box.
‘Yes,’ she said.
That night I’d gone to bed unusually early, a cigarette having put me in a particularly dizzy and feverish mood. I lay in bed, stripped to the waist, with only a pair of briefs between myself and the world. I was boiling, with one foot in the land of nod and the other planted firmly in the bedchamber. I had some vague sense that Tammy lay in the room though she must have been perfectly silent.
I’d left the business of breaking-and-entering to Rupert, wanting to have nothing to do with the matter myself. To be honest, I thought the proposal had slipped from our agenda, neither Rupert, Tammy or I having said anything more about it since Rupert had initially proposed the transgression. It was as if we expected the dirty-work to be carried out just by our daring to mention it in the first place. Rupert, as far as I knew, had fallen asleep quite happily on the sofa downstairs several hours ago, a thin, smooth, Mason’s cigarette burning away in his chubby little fingers.॥
Suddenly, from inside the house, I could hear the back door creak open and footsteps pattering into the garden. I was in a kind of stupor and breathed heavily, each inhalation burning my chest. I heard the jangling of metal, then the tack tack tack of one metal thing hitting another in regular cycles and with long pauses, as if operating through half-conscious somnambulistic rhythms.
tACK tACK tACK ー tACK tACK tACK
On and on it went, ringing out like some undead monastery bell, louder and louder with each iteration. The crack of steel against steel; a dull, mirthless penetration that seemed as if it would never end. It grew so loud that it seemed to enter the room and loom over my prostrate body.
tACK tACK tACK ー tACK tACK tACK
tACK tACK tACK ー tACK tACK tACK
tACK tACK tACK ー tACK tACK tACK
Then smashed glass, the smell of rotting vegetables, and a hand running softly across my leg.
* Unedited, as it first appeared in Trooper Magazine, a boys’ weekly under Jesterton’s editorship until his resignation several weeks after the publication of The Greenhouse
† Modified from the poem White Rocks by A.E. Artichoke: “Two legions were sent ‘cross foaming sea/ Past Devon’s shores and on to thee./ But we with javelins in hand,/ Were rulers of their newfound land.” Artichoke, who enjoyed popularity as a children’s favourite, has seen his reputation plummet in recent years with the posthumous release of his private notes, published under the title: A Private Predator: The Notes of Artichoke (London: Howling Press, 2014)
‡ Tookaninny Tokens: Counterfeit coins which were heavily circulated in the late 19th century and, later, kept in homes as a novelty item. The majority of coins were manufactured at a fairground in Tookaninny, Marsh End, Bottswop, which is where they got their namesake. By the time this story was written they were a popular novelty item in middle-class homes, hence their appearance here. Ironically, these counterfeit coins became worth a good deal more as antiques, and were exchanged regularly in the black market. Jesterton himself owned a sizeable collection.
§ Whooping Tramps: a common myth perpetuated by Trooper Magazine, intended to encourage its readership to give alms to the homeless; an idea which had found immense popularity among schoolchildren. The scheme was later reversed after the death of Bertie Tremlow, a young boy who had gone into a homeless hotspot in Tooting armed with a fisful of change and not much at all in the way of protection.
॥ Jesterton was later found out to be the recipient of a yearly stipend by the Mason’s cigarette company for mentioning the product in Trooper at least once fortnightly
William Guppy is a normal boy from London. You can find his work at taktak.nu or tweet him at @w_guppy