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Authors: Nicholas Rhea

Constable on the Hill (2 page)

Having got it inside that house, we breathed a sigh of relief – and then remembered we’d left Mary’s bicycle at Strensford, outside the garage which had kindly stored the piano. We’d placed it there while we lifted the piano aboard, and had forgotten all about it. I rang a friend at the police station and he took the cycle into protective custody until we could collect it. We never did collect it – perhaps it’s still there, in the cell passage?

For those reasons, therefore, the piano lingered in the memories of these removal men. Now that Sid had mentioned it, I began to wonder if we would get it into this house. The entrance hall was very narrow and short, and that instrument demanded lots of space and massive strength. The strength was there in those sinewy bodies, but space? I could always keep it in the garage.

The piano was taken off the lorry and left on the garage forecourt until everything else was inside the house. The children did their best, losing things, carrying things, getting in the way and falling into and over everything. By four-thirty, the van was empty the house was full and we had a cup of tea. Only the piano remained.

Using a little trolley, they steered it towards the front door and Sid measured up the prospects with his eyes.

“Nay,” he said. “It’ll not go in.”

“It’ll have to,” I said in what must have been a pleading tone. “It can’t stay on the lawn.”

“It’ll mean taking it to bits.” He leaned on the lid. “Piece by piece, with screwdrivers. It’ll be a long job, and it’ll never be right again. Bad to tune are pianos that have been taken to bits.”

“But overtime for you, eh?” I smiled.

“Aye, happen,” he grinned.

But his mate wasn’t interested in overtime. “We can do it if that front door comes off,” he said. “Take t’front off t’piano, an’ all. It’ll sidle round that banister end, and go in.”

“You and your bloody piano,” Sid growled at me. “Why do you have to cart a thing that size around with you?”

“I can’t live without it,” I told him. “It’s part of my life!”

“You bloody pianists are all alike – kinky. Why don’t you play summat like a flute?”

I didn’t tell him that I couldn’t play a note. I daren’t tell him, not now. I’d always wanted to play a piano, ever since I was a small boy, but somehow never found the time, even if I had found the instrument. I had learned the violin and the recorder, but had always hankered after the piano. I had therefore asked for this one as my twenty-first birthday present because it belonged to the family and because it might otherwise be sold. All those years after moving into Aidensfield, I still have the piano and it continues to cause problems whenever we move house. And I still cannot play it.

By removing the front door and by sheer brute strength and skill, those men got it inside the house and somehow reached the lounge.

“It’s not damaged,” they said, proudly.

“It’s a good job it isn’t!” I said, “It would have been a big insurance job.”

“That’s it, then,” Sid announced. “All in. Report the gateposts to your sergeant and write to my firm about the breakages. Insurance jobs, all of them.”

I gave them a tip, said farewell until next time and watched them take the lorry away from the house. I was left with two broken gates and three children who couldn’t wait to get onto the road. Until now, the lorry’s front end had effectively blocked this exit, but I managed to stand up the gates by propping them against old packing cases, then Mary and I set about the massive task of putting the house straight.

We were allowed one day off duty before a removal, a day for the removal and one day off duty afterwards. That’s all – after that, it was work as normal. By half-past-five, the children were beyond themselves with fatigue and hunger, so Mary made us a meal. We bathed them and plonked them into their beds, thankful that they, at least, were no longer a liability.

Then we turned our attention to the packing cases and began the long task of finding somewhere to put everything. We turned in just after midnight, completely exhausted and the children woke us next morning at six. We struggled, aching, from our beds and began another long day’s work. The tasks seemed without end, but several villagers
telephoned
during the day, just to welcome us. I had no idea
who they were. All of them said, “Welcome,” and all said, “We’ll be meeting you soon.” It helped us through that tiring day. No one acknowledged leaving the cabbage, the pigeons or the hare, but already I began to feel at home. It did not take too long to make the house habitable, and besides, county policemen of those times never unpacked everything, in case they were soon on the move.

Like those men, I maintained a useful collection of empty and half-full tea-chests which I lodged in garages and attics. Sometimes, we received only one week’s notice of a removal to a new station, sometimes less, therefore we remained ready for instant exit. Happily, things have changed but at that time, I decided to position my tea-chests in the office.

The phone rang during the late afternoon of that first day, and a voice said,

“Rhea?”

“Yes?” I answered.

“Sergeant Blaketon here. I’m your section sergeant. I’m at Ashfordly. You’re on at nine in the morning. Spend the first hour in your own office, finding things. Check the inventory. Then get the bike out and come down here. Be here before half-past-ten. Right?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” I heard myself say, and the phone died.

He didn’t ask if I could ride the official motor-cycle and I didn’t know either, so I went into the garage to examine it. There was plenty of room for my car and the bike. It was a Francis Barnett two-stroke with a windscreen at the front and a radio on the back. A tall, flexible aerial protruded from the rear, like an upright tail, and the speaker was fixed to the handlebars, just above the tank. The entire machine was black and very clean, so I sat astride. I shook it and found it was full of petrol, kicked the starter and it burst immediately into life in the confines of the garage. I chugged outside, did a shaky tour of the lawn much to the amusement of my family and returned it to its place in the garage. I had ridden a motor-cycle as a teenager but had rapidly decided on a car after Mary and I ploughed through a hedge on our old machine. That incident put me off work for eight weeks.

But now I must ride again. On a summer’s day, it would be very pleasant and I was looking forward to it. My gear was in
the office, including a crash helmet of the correct size.
Waterproof
leggings and several coats completed the outfit, all sent along ahead of me by our efficient Clothing Department. I wondered how it would feel to ride a motor-cycle in police uniform. There’s a certain difference between roaring along on one’s own machine at the age of nineteen and steering a police motor-cycle about its legitimate business. I would soon know that difference.

At seven the following morning, the children earned their keep by waking us, and I dressed and shaved. I put on a smart uniform and breakfasted, then went into my little office well before eight-thirty. I searched the drawers of the desk and found a mileage book for the motor-cycle. This had to be completed after every journey and after every filling of the petrol tank. I found the inventory for the house and office, checked it and found everything there. Also in the office were files of offence reports, the work of my predecessor, files full of circulars bearing details of unsolved local and national crimes, and masses of other papers. There were leaflets about warble fly, anthrax and foul pest, about firearms and vehicle accidents, about Colorado beetles and police dances. And there was the Beat Report.

This was a most useful compilation, for it was an
encyclopaedia
of information appertaining to that beat. It provided me with the names of people like doctors, vets, RSPCA officials, Water Board officials, Gas Board and electrical wizards. It told me who to trust and who to watch; it named local villains and ne’er-do-wells; it had phone numbers of important institutions like the garages and pubs, and it listed churches, schools, experts on sundry things and a whole host of other useful material.

As I browsed through its pages, the phone rang.

“P.C. Rhea,” I answered, somewhat nervously, for this could be my first job, my first piece of live duty.

“It’s Alwyn Foxton down at Ashfordly,” came the voice. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. You’re coming in, Serge tells me, to have a look around this office?”

“Yes, about half-ten.”

“There’s a lot of messages for you,” he said. “Routine stuff – stolen vehicles, wanted and missing persons,
house-breakings 
and larcenies. That sort of thing. Nothing urgent.”

“I’ll pick it up when I get in, eh?”

“Fine. See you then.”

And he rang off.

From this point, I knew I was doing real police work. After spending the past four years in an office, working with filing systems, accounts and housing problems, it was refreshing and exciting to return to real police work. Out here on one’s own, there was no knowing what lay around the corner, no idea what was going to happen during the next day, next hour or even next minute. I was on duty twenty-four hours a day, although I worked a basic eight hours per day. That did not prevent me from being knocked out of bed at any time to deal with anything, even on my official day off. But that kind of life has its compensations, like freedom to patrol the beat as one wishes, freedom to mix with the people of the area and freedom to make one’s own decisions, plus the thrill of finding cabbages on door knobs.

By ten o’clock, I had found my way around the office and had discovered the whereabouts of everything I needed. I found the switch for the heater, the key for the office door and the piece of chalk that every policeman carried in those days. It was used to mark the position of car wheels on the road surface when dealing with traffic accidents; it meant the cars could be moved before measurements were taken and so avoid congestion. I popped the chalk into my pocket, found a roll-up ruler too, had a cup of coffee and sallied forth into Ashfordly, four miles away.

I drove very steadily, the Francis Barnett wobbling
alarmingly
from time to time, and I forgot to switch on the police radio. But I got to Ashfordly without mishap and found the police station. I had to ask the way – I felt something of a fool, sitting on a police motor-cycle in full uniform, asking a little old lady the way to the police station. She told, but her eyes told of her alarm. She would tell a good tale over coffee that morning.

Ashfordly Police Station is a beautiful building. It is built of good-quality brick, and stands solidly on one of the nicer streets, just off the centre of this busy market town. Attached to each end of the office there is a police house, one being
occupied by Sergeant Blaketon and the other by the senior constable, in this case Alwyn Foxton. In front of the station is an attractive garden, tidily kept by the sergeant or anyone else detailed to do so, while inside the place is immaculate. A daily cleaner pops in to do the brasses, to dust and polish and consequently the place reeks of polish and shines with the brilliance of a well-kept fire-engine. Police cleaning ladies are inordinately proud of their own buildings.

There is one garage and it was occupied by the official car, a neat black Ford Anglia. The place hummed with clean-cut efficiency.

I must admit that I trembled with anticipation as I walked along the path towards the front door. I had parked the motor-bike beside a convenient wall and entered to smell the cleanliness. I found a grey-haired policeman leaning on the counter, waiting for me with his red and jolly face.

“Alwyn Foxton,” he extended a hand.

“Nicholas Rhea,” I shook his hand.

“Sergeant Blaketon had to go out,” he told me. “He won’t be long. Take those leggings and things off, and I’ll show you round. Not that there’s much to see.”

In fact, there was very little to see. To the left of the door was the tiny public office with a long wooden counter running from the inside of that door. To the right, was the sergeant’s office. Alwyn explained there were two sergeants – Charlie Bairstow who was enjoying a day off and who lived at Brantsford, and Oscar Blaketon now on duty and somewhere in town. Bairstow was easy-going, he told me, while Blaketon stuck to the rules. I would meet them both in due course and make my own judgements.

The office contained bound copies of the
Criminal
Law
Review,
the
Justice
of
the
Peace,
and some very ancient police law books. There was little else, save the weekly duty sheets. The duty sheet showed me as ‘rural beat’ for tomorrow and the following day, with a late route from 7 pm until 11 pm the day after that.

Alwyn showed me the Found Property register, the Lost Property register, the return of licensing premises, the return of explosives stores, bookmakers’ shops, telephone calls register, postage book, the list of keyholders of places like
banks and shops, and the names of local contacts. I would, from time to time, be instructed to perform duty in this town, and based on this office, especially when there was a shortage of men due to leave or sickness. In any case, I was expected to pop in at least twice a week to keep myself updated with affairs in town. Actually, the town boasted a population of only 3,000 but for us folks on the moors, this was a
considerable
centre of activity.

“Have we any cells?” I asked, thinking of prisoners.

“Two,” Alwyn told me. “I’ll show you. In fact,” he went on, “the toilet is in one of the cells. We haven’t an official toilet here, so we all use the cells.”

He led me into the tiny cell passage where were confronted by two massive, studded doors with huge keys and gigantic iron hinges. No. 1 cell was on the left.

“Males in No. 1,” he said. “Females in No. 2.”

He pushed open the door of No. 1 and revealed the carcase of a fallow deer. It was lying on the stone floor.

“Killed in an accident with a milk lorry,” he said. “This morning, just out of town.”

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