Read Constable on the Hill Online

Authors: Nicholas Rhea

Constable on the Hill (8 page)

At this point, I learned of the two great differences between greyhound racing and coursing. Firstly, the hare in coursing is a live one; he is on his home ground, unconfined open countryside which he knows intimately and which he uses to good advantage. The second difference is that the dogs
operate
only in pairs, and they are identified by colours. One wears red and the other wears white.

Because the competition begins with the slipping, the judge has the unenviable task of deciding the winner and it is invariably a very close contest. The judge on this occasion was a lady, the only woman qualified as a coursing judge in the North of England. She had to award points for speed in get-away, for the number of times the dog makes the hare turn, for go-byes (overtaking of one dog by the other in the chase), and for the lengths distant from the hare. Points are also awarded for toppling the hare, but not for a kill. A kill does not determine the winning dog. In fact, a kill can lose the course because the other dog can gain valuable points during the killer’s excitement. If a kill does occur, the course
ends there, but it usually occurs when the hare escapes through the hedge and runs out of the coursing field. At this point, a trained coursing greyhound will return to its owner. Usually, coursing greyhounds are kept solely for this purpose and are not run in other races.

During all the meetings I attended in the course of my police duty, I never saw one hare killed or maimed. As a matter of interest, it is a strict rule that only wild hares are used for the sport. It is against coursing rules to breed hares or to use captive hares for this purpose. Another rule forbids the coursing of ground to which hares have been introduced within the last six months. This allows the animals time to acquaint themselves with their natural surroundings. Some clubs will not chase hares which are wet due to the rain. They like their hares to be in peak condition – it helps the hares and it provides a better test of skill for the dogs. Hares are always given between 150 and 200 yards start too.

I must admit that I was impressed by the rigid rules which govern the sport, and after talking to the followers I was pleased to learn that they do their utmost to obey those rules. They are very conscious of the propaganda being issued against the sport and ask only that the true facts be known to a wider audience.

The judge, at the end of each course, raises either a red flag or a white one to indicate the winning dog; if the result is a draw, the judge raises his (or her) riding cap. The judge wears hunting pink.

At this meeting, sixteen dogs were waiting to participate, and at £5 per entry, the prize money was good. The victorious dog is the only one who has beaten all others during the day’s competition, having knocked out all competitors as the meeting progresses. The winning dog of each heat competes against the following dog, but on a bad day, not every dog will get his chance. It depends upon the number of hares found; hares are not always available and cannot be made to appear to order.

The ultimate in the coursing world in this country is the Waterloo Cup, held each February at Altcar, near Liverpool. This was instituted in 1836 by the proprietor of the Waterloo Hotel in Liverpool, and the winning of that cup is the dream
of every coursing fanatic. But even our little meeting attracted its share of enthusiasts – they came from all over Great Britain, including Scotland and Ireland.

But, as O.B. had predicted, the meeting also attracted unwelcome attention. As the day progressed, I became aware of alien visitors, people carrying placards and waving banners which condemned coursing and all who followed it. I realised they were there about two-thirty in the afternoon and as it would grow dark before five, I was not too alarmed. The meeting would end about four o’clock, I felt, so I decided to keep a wary eye on the visitors. I would inform the organisers if trouble appeared likely. I noticed the protestors were
long-haired
, youthful and serious; they did not dress like
country-folk
, and they did not enter the coursing area. They remained on the road outside the farm, having apparently learned something of the laws of trespass on private property. Had they trespassed on that field during the day, the farmer would have been within his rights to eject them or at least ask them to leave. He allowed coursing spectators and participants upon his land, but did not permit enemies of the sport to enter, consequently they could be considered trespassers.

Clearly, they realised this and as the afternoon progressed, the little gathering of protestors grew to around twenty. They had chosen their location fairly well because everyone who left the coursing meeting, whether by vehicle or on foot, would have to pass them and read their messages or listen to their words of wisdom. The sporting Press were there too, but whether they would photograph these people remained in doubt. The local reporter was there, but he did not warrant the assistance of a photographer. It seemed that their protest would be limited to the spectators and a few villagers, and I knew they would all ignore it.

Happily, the demonstration was a peaceful one. I wandered over to the group to acquaint myself with them and found them charming and sincere, an interesting group of earnest youngsters, male and female, none of whom had ever
attended
a coursing meeting and none of whom had studied the rules. Nonetheless, they believed they had a right to make their protest and I could not forbid them, unless they
obstructed
the highway or broke the law in some other way. I
did not wish to chase them away, for everyone must have the right to free speech and thought, so long as it does not infringe upon the freedom of others.

I returned to the meeting for the final minutes and then Sergeant Blaketon arrived.

“What’s that lot at the road end?” he asked, indicating with his head.

“Protestors,” I told him. “They’ve come to demonstrate against coursing.”

“Are they a nuisance?” he put to me.

“No, Sergeant,” and I explained their activities and intentions.

“They can’t hang around here all night,” he commented.

“They won’t,” I assured him. “The meeting ends about four o’clock and I’m sure they’ll leave then. They’ve got scooters with them.”

“Don’t stand any nonsense from them,” he ordered me. “Remember you can book them for obstruction of the
highway
if they block the road. And there’s breach of the peace if they fight.”

“I’ll remember, Sergeant,” and off he went to have a look at the final contest of the day. I remained near the gate, keeping half an eye on the protestors and half on the progress of the meeting. As the final race got under way, I saw the protestors group themselves into a formidable knot and squat right in the centre of the exit road! I groaned. This was exactly what I did not want. This could cause trouble.

This kind of thing had been done before. Demonstrators would squat in the middle of the road, a most effective ploy, and they brought traffic to a halt. With Press and
photographers
there, the situation could be guaranteed publicity and this was beneficial to their cause. Invariably, those
protested
against would react violently and that would damage their image. With only two policemen at this meeting, as fast as we removed one protestor, another would take his place. Two policemen could not forcibly remove twenty sit-down demonstrators. The spectators’ cars would be forced to stop and frustration would build up into something serious. If the protestors were manhandled by anyone except the police, they would register complaints of assault. And this was the
only exit route from the field. I couldn’t direct the leaving crowds via another route. I was sure that if I left the
sit-downers
in position, the trapped and frustrated spectators would use their own methods of dispersal. And that would mean trouble – big trouble, with lots of unwelcome publicity.

I looked at my watch. It was ten minutes to four.

Already cars were forming a queue at the exit of the car park and within minutes, they would arrive at this blockage. I decided to address the group.

“O.K. lads,” I began. “You’ve made your point. Now move on, please, and let these people go home.”

“We’re not moving until we get an assurance that there will be no further coursing meetings here,” said their spokesman, a clean-faced youngster with freckles and bright blue eyes.

“I’m afraid you will have to move,” I chose my words carefully.

“It will take more than you and your sergeant to shift us,” said another, a thick-set youth with a bushy beard. He looked like a prop forward.

“You said it,” I smiled, and returned to the field. Sergeant Blaketon came towards me, looking very harassed.

“They’re there, Rhea, look at them! They’ll sit there and block the road until they’ve got publicity. If we’re not careful, there’ll be a punch-up. Some of these chaps have had a skin full of ale …”

“We needn’t worry, Sergeant,” I said confidently. “They’ll soon go,” and I told him the reason why I was so sure. He smiled and nodded his approval to my idea. I then moved towards the first car in the queue and explained the situation to him, asking him to be patient for about ten minutes. He agreed. I told the driver of the car behind and got the motorists to pass back the word. They smiled and were happy at my suggestions.

And so the protestors sat in the middle of the exit road, with a queue of very patient, smiling motorists confronting them, with engines idle and with no blaring horns. I waited too, and I must admit I was a little apprehensive. The seconds ticked away. Four o’clock came and went. And then at three minutes past four, I knew I had won.

Farmer Joe Sculley was bringing his cows in. They moved
slowly and inexorably towards the little band of
demonstrators
, their horned heads down and their tails lashing as they deposited pounds of wet cow-clap behind them along their route. Those cows had no intention of stopping for this little party and ploughed on, thinking only of the blessed relief of the milking parlour.

In the face of this opposition, the demonstrators left their positions and the leading car moved deftly into position right behind the cows, spreading the fertiliser evenly across the highway. The queue of cars moved slowly away behind the trudging cows, and so we won the day.

It would take a very dedicated demonstrator to squat in a sea of freshly deposited cow dung.

I became fascinated at the number of craftsmen who
managed
to earn a living on my beat. Almost every village or hamlet boasted one or more of these interesting folk. There was the cobbler of Elsinby, the woodcarver of Aidensfield, the blacksmith of Maddleskirk, the potter of Crampton, the furniture-maker of Briggsby and a host of assorted artists, writers and sculptors.

I found these people just as interesting as the farmers and rurals with whom I worked, and I respected them because of their independence, their love of hard work and their undying spirit. In their own way, they had discarded what is often termed the “rat race”, and had settled in this rural paradise to earn their living in the way they wished. Pensions and status meant nothing to them, and they seemed to avoid the pressures of modern life. I was envious of them and their freedom.

I did not discover all these people at once. It took me some months to appreciate the wealth of talent that lay within the boundaries of my beat and I made new discoveries of this sort almost weekly. The first realisation that I had someone of note living nearby came with the arrival of a huge lorry. It parked outside my house one afternoon while I was off duty, enjoying a spot of weeding. The driver hailed me and announced he was seeking a Mr James Flagg who had a quarry.

“There’s no one of that name with a quarry around here,” I told him, racking my brains to recall such a person.

“Well,” said the driver. “I’ve got a delivery note that says there is. ‘James Flagg, Aidensfield’, it says. And I’ve got a bloody great lump of rock for him.”

He pointed to the rock in question. It was massive. I did wonder why he’d be taking rock
to
a quarry, but didn’t ask – there must have been a logical reason.

“There’s only one quarry around here,” I pointed out. “It’s down the road at Thackerston. It’s a limestone quarry, getting rid of lumps like that after it’s been broken down to powder.”

“I’ve been there,” he said. “It’s not theirs.”

Being new to the village, I decided to ask Mary if she’d heard of Flagg. She’d met many villagers socially. “Darling,” I called through the door. “Have we anybody called Flagg in the village?”

“Yes,” she replied. “I’ve met her, she’s got a youngster at play-school. She plays with our Elizabeth. Nice people. They live in that little cottage at the far end of the village.
Honeysuckle
Cottage.”

I knew the house. It was a gorgeous cottage built into the lee of a hill; it faced south with roses and honeysuckle around the doorway and was everyone’s ideal country home.

“There’s a Mr Flagg down the village,” I pointed out the route. “But it’s not a quarry. He’s a sculptor – he carves things out of stone and wood.”

I had seen him at work as I passed his house, but hadn’t connected the name with him until now.

“How am I going to get this lump off my truck then? I thought I was taking it to a quarry – I thought there’d be lifting gear …”

I walked to the gate for a closer look at his load. Strapped onto the flat rear of his lorry was a huge oblong piece of stone. It was a good eight feet long by six feet high and six feet wide. It was secured with heavy ropes and stood on a pad of thick rubber material. It had come from somewhere in the Scottish Highlands and was beautiful to behold. I don’t know what type of stone it was, but even in its square untouched state, it looked magnificent. Having made sure the driver knew the location of
Honeysuckle
Cottage, I waved him into a lane to turn his long vehicle.

“I hope that chap’s got lifting gear,” he shouted as he moved off.

“If he’s expecting you, he’ll have something fixed up, I’m sure,” I called after him, hopefully.

I must confess that my curiosity had been aroused and fortuitously I had some mail to post. This seemed an ideal time to potter down the village and drop them in the letter box. I dressed in some passable clothes which were not full of soil and stray rose thorns, and meandered upon my little expedition.

From the distance, I could see the lorry parked outside Honeysuckle Cottage and could see the figure of the driver gesticulating; before him stood the squat shape of the sculptor, listening carefully. They walked around the lofty chunk of rock, each looking seriously at the vehicle and doubtless discussing mutual problems. I pushed my letters into the box and went into the post office to buy some stamps, a pair of bootlaces, some sugar and a bag of firelighters. When I emerged, they were still there, walking around the lorry like a pair of dogs sniffing a butcher’s van.

I wished I dare walk closer, but refrained because it would seem I was snooping. But a shout from one of them halted me.

“Mr Rhea!” It was not the lorry driver’s voice. I stopped, turned around and walked the fifty yards or so towards the unhappy pair.

“Mr Rhea? Our new policeman?” the man asked me.

“I am.”

“James Flagg. I’m a sculptor, as you may know. I’ve a problem,” and he looked at the vehicle and its load.

“Is it yours?”

“Mine,” he smiled wryly. “All the way from Scotland and would you believe, they’ve sent it on a flat lorry. No crane. They always send a lorry with lifting gear. What can I do? It must not be cracked or chipped in any way. It’s for a commissioned piece – a Madonna and Child …”

“How much does it weigh?” I asked.

“Several tons,” said the driver. “I’m not sure really, except it’s a bloody great lump of stone.”

“You’ve not had this problem before?” I asked Flagg, hoping he might provide his own solution.

“Never. Mind you, this is the biggest chunk I’ve ordered for
a long time, and they’ve always sent a lorry with lifting gear. Always. They know my requirements.”

“There’s Paddy Stone at Maddleskirk,” I suggested.

“Stone? That’s appropriate!” laughed Flagg. “Who’s he?”

“He’s got the timber yard there. I had him remove a fallen oak a few weeks ago. He came out with a massive crane and shifted it in no time. I’ll bet that oak weighed as much as your lump of stone.”

“Is he on the telephone?”

“He must be,” I said.

Flagg rushed inside and made his call. It seemed that Paddy was at work in his timber yard and being the generous man that he was, he accepted the challenge. It was a
ten-minute
drive out to Aidensfield, and he came with two of his best men, plus an impressive crane.

The problem was finding something to grip the rock
without
damaging it and then to lift it sufficiently to slide a powerful sling beneath. But Paddy did the trick. He used a type of jack which lifted the stone very gently and then slid a second one beneath it. By pumping a handle, he lifted the rock high enough to slide a strong belt beneath it, and he repeated this with other strong belts until he had the chunk in a type of cradle.

It was then a simple matter for the crane to hoist it from the lorry and deposit it in Flagg’s front garden, at a point selected by him. We all went inside for a noggin of whisky and Paddy got himself a few quid for the job.

When I showed interest in Flagg’s work, he showed me around his studio. He explained how a figure was created and how moulds were made for copies to be taken. His work appeared in many churches, both in Britain and Europe, and from that day I was welcome to call at any time. It was an offer that I frequently accepted. I would stand for minutes at a time, watching him chip away at featureless lumps of rock or timber, to create beautiful figures in his own distinctive style.

Over the months, I saw that huge lump of rock change shape. It lost its squareness and began to assume a more rounded outline, and then the features of a head began to appear. This was gradually followed by the familiar outline of
a Madonna and Child, and by the end of the year, the figure was complete. It was beautiful, two human bodies with skin as smooth as any advert for expensive soap whose clothing bore all the creases and wrinkles that one expects in real life. The expression on the mother’s face, the innocence in the baby’s gaze – it was all contained in that solid lump of Scottish rock.

The next problem was moving it out. It had to travel down to London to the buyer who had commissioned it, and I was pleased to learn that Paddy was hired for the lifting ceremony. With infinite care and tenderness, he used his experience to manhandle that heavy, boxed load onto a lorry for transportation to the big city, two hundred and fifty miles away. Before it left, Flagg opened the crate to inspect his work, to ensure it was undamaged before leaving Aidensfield. I looked inside too, and so did the lorry driver, a stranger to the area.

He looked at the child’s face, and then at Paddy.

“That’s you, innit?” he smiled and the case was bolted shut.

Paddy blushed; I hadn’t noticed the likeness, and James Flagg merely smiled. The load arrived safely at its destination and Paddy got more jobs after that. But I could hardly regard him as a face of innocence.

 

Samuel Cook looked like a cobbler, which he was. I found him by accident. When walking through Elsinby one
afternoon
, the heel of my boot fell off and my embarrassment was witnessed by an elderly gentleman on his way to collect his pension.

“Nip into Aud Sam’s,” he advised. “He’ll fix it for you.”

He issued guidance to Sam’s workshop so I hobbled the few hundred yards to locate it. It was half way up a steep hill which led from Elsinby towards Waindale. It was a wooden hut painted a deep green and somewhat isolated. Sam seemed happy out here, a good five minutes’ walk from his home.

I limped to the door, knocked and waited. There was no reply, but I knew he was inside because I could hear the whirl
of his sewing-machine. I knocked again. The noise stopped and the door opened. A small man about sixty years old with thick ginger hair greeted me. He had heavy spectacles with thick lenses and they were covered in dust. How he could see through that heavy layer, I do not know. He wore a thick, long apron of strong leather and several tin tacks were clamped between his lips, like vampire’s fangs.

He muttered through them.

“Come in, nobody ever knocks, Just come in,” so I followed him into the tiny workshop. To the left of his door was his store of new shoes and wellington boots, all for sale. They were stored neatly on racks, brown on one side of the hut and black on the other. There were no other colours. The big shelves held huge boots, tough shoes and leather leggings, all the trappings of country folk, while the smaller shelves bore the cobbler’s accoutrements, like polish, laces, heels, dubbin, brushes and a host of other items. The entire place reeked of leather – the woodwork must be saturated with the scent, but it was not unpleasant.

In the centre of the floor stood an ancient but efficient wood-burning stove. This was Sam’s heating system and waste disposal unit; when winter descended, I found it most reliable and welcoming. He used it to burn his waste products and rubbish, and I later discovered that he mended Paddy Stone’s shoes, and did other leather work for him, all free of charge. This was in return for free loads of end-cuts from Paddy’s timber yard. Sam would drive up in his van, deliver a pile of boots and shoes which Paddy repaired for his family and workmen, and in return Paddy would load Sam’s van with pieces cut off the end of his timber. It seemed a
marvellous
working arrangement, although I often wondered what the tax man made of it.

To the right as you entered the hut was Sam’s working area, containing the bench at which he spent all his working days. Here he had spent all his working life, cobbling for all he was worth and it seemed he demanded no more from society than the grace to allow him to continue his craft. He had a very old but beautifully made sewing-machine which looked as if it would never break down, and which thrived on a diet of thick thread and thin oil. The bench was piled high
with leather pieces of all shapes and sizes, and knives hung from the wall. These were razor sharp with blades hollowed by sharpening over countless years. Many is the time I’ve watched him shape a heel from a piece of thick leather, marvelling at his swift and uncanny skill. That first day, I watched him hammer one home on a boot, skim the edges with a polishing wheel and then dye the new leather to match the existing boot. It looked so simple, but this was his craft. He worked day in and day out, never complaining.

I showed him the heel of my boot and he examined it. “You could do with a new ’un,” he said simply, his brown face expressionless.

“I’ll leave it,” I said stupidly, for I had no spare.

“Nay, I’ll fix it now,” and he did. I sat on a chair near the stove with one stockinged foot on a stool as he shaped a heel for me. He tacked it onto my boot and trimmed the edges.

“How much?” I asked when he’d finished.

“Sixpence,” was his price.

“Sixpence?” I gasped. It would have cost me a few shillings in town. “Here, take two bob.”

But he refused. “I know my terms,” he said proudly. “I’m not one for making a big profit. Big money brings its
problems
, you know. I just want to earn a decent living – a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.”

He steadfastly refused even to take a sixpence as a tip. Today, a sixpence is worth 2½ pence in decimalised currency. Naturally, I returned there often, with my police boots, the children’s shoes, leather bags and a host of other items which required his skill. His charges for sewing up a split handbag or suitcase would be 2d or 3d; the full repair of a pair of shoes would be fifteen shillings or so, all of which were about a third of the price in York or elsewhere. And he was good too – plus the fact, he provided personal service.

Through calling regularly, I discovered he was seldom alone in his little shop. Everyone popped in for a sit beside his stove and a chat, but he worked through their chatter. He talked freely about his life, about shoeing the monks at nearby Maddleskirk Abbey, about making hunting boots, clogs, leather aprons and saddleware. He could fashion
almost anything from leather it seemed, but he had another talent. I learned he was a hairdresser.

Other books

The Book of Spies by Gayle Lynds
Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen
Wolf at the Door by Sadie Hart
Cassidy Lane by Murnane, Maria
Romeow and Juliet by Kathi Daley
Los ojos del alma by Jordi Sierra i Fabra
Energized by Mary Behre
Sons by Michael Halfhill