Read Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror Online
Authors: Chris Priestley
Thomas Haynes first saw the tinker outside the bank in Sidney Street. His parents were inside, dealing with some dull financial matter, and Thomas was waiting in the street, watching the tide of Cambridge life flow past.
As he was standing there, the tinker shuffled by, dressed in a long frayed top coat and dusty wide-brimmed hat, his filthy hands gripping the spars of a rickety barrow, filled to overflowing with a seemingly random collection of rugs, clothes, shoes, scrap metal and broken furniture.
A rusting birdcage hung from a hook and chain, clunking against the side of the barrow with every step the tinker took and Thomas was amazed to see a thin, bedraggled monkey, wearing a gaudy waistcoat and tiny red fez, suddenly emerge from under a blanket and come to the side to inspect him.
The tinker stopped in his tracks and turned to face Thomas. His eyes twinkled in the shadow of his hat and narrowed. A strange expression played across his face, as if he recognised him, though Thomas was sure they had never met.
Thomas was unnerved by this unwanted eye contact and was about to retreat into the bank when at that very moment his parents stepped out. They were about to walk on and go for lunch, when his father noticed the tinker's barrow still standing beside them.
'Good Lord,.' he said, reaching towards something among the bric-a-brac. The monkey dashed towards him, baring his teeth and Thomas's father pulled back his hand.
'Filthy creature!' he hissed, shooing him away. The monkey ran chattering to the tinker, jumping on to his shoulder and staring back at Thomas's father malevolently. The tinker did not move.
'I say!' said Thomas's father. 'I say - you there!'
The tinker still did not move.
'The impertinence of the man,.' muttered Thomas's father. 'You there!' he shouted, slapping the side of the barrow. The tinker flinched slightly and turned slowly round. His grim and unpleasant face wore the beaten and fragile expression Thomas had seen many times on his grandmother's face during one of her migraine attacks.
'What can I do for you, governor?' he said in a comically loud voice, as if he were calling from the other side of a river rather than two feet away.
'The poor man's clearly a little deaf, dear,.' said Thomas's mother, putting her hand to her mouth to hide her smile.
'There's something in your cart here,.' shouted his father. 'Your monkey . . .'
'Pablo won't hurt you, sir,.' shouted the tinker.
'Don't be afeared.'
'Very well, then,.' shouted Thomas's father, feeling a little self-conscious at the volume of their conversation. He reached in gingerly and grabbed a carved wooden figure. He held it up and inspected it carefully.
Thomas leaned forward. The carving resembled a rather elaborate bookend, fashioned into the shape of a horned demon with folded bat's wings, crouched on its haunches with its hand to its face in the pose of someone whispering, its long saturnine face frozen into a wide grin.
'What is it, Father?' said Thomas, fascinated and revolted in equal measure.
'I believe it to be a medieval bench end, Thomas,. ' said his father, turning it over in his hands admiringly. 'They sit at the end of pews in some old churches. Do you remember the ones we saw in Suffolk last year?'
Thomas remembered now. There had been elaborate carvings of animals and figures in medieval dress. But there had been nothing quite like this.
'Not for sale,.' shouted the tinker.
'How did you come by this?' said Thomas's father imperiously.
'It's not for sale,.' repeated the tinker even more loudly, already beginning to turn away.
'Do not adopt that impertinent tone with me,.' said Thomas's father. 'I have a good mind to fetch a policeman!'
'It still won't be for sale,.' said the tinker over his shoulder, pulling on the barrow and moving away towards the market.
'How dare you!'
'Rupert, please,.' said Thomas's mother. 'You are causing a scene. People are staring.'
Thomas looked about and saw that people were indeed looking their way and two urchins, one with no shoes on his feet, were pointing and giggling. Thomas's father bristled, his face reddening, and he stroked his moustache with his thumb and forefinger a number of times before smiling at his wife.
'Very well, then. Who's for lunch?' he said, his humour restored, clapping Thomas on the shoulder as they walked on.
But over lunch, Thomas's father soon returned to the subject of the tinker and the demon bench end.
'What is the world coming to,.' he said wearily, 'when something like that can simply be removed from a place of worship without any redress whatsoever?'
'It was rather ugly if you ask me,.' said Thomas's mother.
'Grotesque, I will grant you,.' said his father, 'but all the more fascinating for it. But he should not have it. It was part of the fabric of a church, darling.'
'And what about all those beastly things at the museum?' teased his mother. 'Were they not ripped out of temples and tombs and such like?'
'That's different, as well you know, my dear,.' said his father. 'I hope you are not comparing my esteemed colleagues with that . . . that . . . odious beggar. He has no respect for such things. No respect at all. It is sacrilege, pure and simple.'
Thomas was surprised to find that despite the fact that he did not in any way share his father's interest in antiquities, he could not get the image of the bench end out of his mind. Long after his parents had moved on in their conversation, Thomas kept seeing in his mind's eye the hideous, leering face of the carved demon.
After lunch they walked past the venerable old colleges and out of town, through Newnham, out on to the river path back to Grantchester. Summer was coming to an end, but it was still warm and the countryside around them was bathed in September sunshine.
Thomas's parents walked the high bridleway, but Thomas himself kept close to the river, searching the weed-tangled waters for pike and excitedly watching a kingfisher flash by, exotically iridescent, like a jewel from a pharaoh's tomb.
Some rough village boys were clambering about in the branches of a tall tree on the opposite bank and stared at him sullenly as he walked past before renewing their games - one of them jumping from a dizzying height with a great splash in the middle of the river.
Further along, punts glided by, piloted with varying degrees of competence. Thomas looked at a group of laughing students sailing by and dreamed of the day that he might go to one of the colleges, whose high walls and guarded gateways he longed to breach.
But, once again, into the dreamy haze of these idyllic scenes the demon's grinning face returned and haunted him from every shadow and dark pool, until he retreated from the riverside and joined his parents on the ridge, craving company and the wide, bright view.
The following day Thomas was sent by his mother to take a note to the vicar about a musical evening she had been organising for some months. He had just walked past the church when he noticed the tinker's barrow they had seen in Cambridge.
Thomas felt a strange tightening in his chest. His hands suddenly felt a little numb and he flexed his fingers. Slowly, as if guided by a puppeteer, Thomas walked towards the rickety barrow.
The monkey sat at the back atop a pile of rolled-up rugs and eyed him with a haughty familiarity, as if he had expected to see him. But of the tinker there was no sign whatsoever.
Thomas edged towards the barrow, keeping a wary eye on the monkey all the time. He had seen the creature's teeth and he did not relish getting bitten. All the same, Thomas was unable to keep himself from looking for the carved bench end.
Sure enough, he saw the polished horns of the demon's head poking out from under a moth-eaten carpet bag. He looked around him. The street was as quiet as the nearby graveyard. All he had to do was reach out his hand and the bench end would be his. After all, this filthy tinker probably stole it himself. Stealing from a thief was hardly a crime at all.
But if he had no fear of the stain on his immortal character, then Thomas certainly had a very real fear of the monkey, who now seemed to regard him with utter disdain, as if he sat in judgement.
Thomas leaned forward, extending his arm and reaching his fingers towards the bench end. The monkey made no move to prevent him but sat looking straight into his face the entire time, until Thomas clutched the bench end to his chest. Feeling pleased with himself, he turned to walk away and came face to face with the tinker, who grabbed him by the arm.
The monkey suddenly let out a horribly loud and chattering laugh. Or at least Thomas had
it was the monkey. But looking now, he could see that the monkey's mouth was firmly closed, despite the din. The tinker stared at him.
'I was just looking at it,.' said Thomas. 'You can have it back!'
'Not likely, my friend,.' said the tinker as the chattering grew in volume.
'Let me go or I shall call my father!'
'I'm sorry, my boy,.' said the tinker. 'Very sorry. I mistook you for your pa. I never thought to be passing it on to a young fellow like yourself. But I don't make the rules. You'll see. When your time comes you'll be the same. You'll pass it on to your own mother if you have to.' An exhausted smile broke out across his face and he was panting as if he had just laid down a huge burden. Sweat was trickling down his forehead.
The noise was roaring through Thomas's ears. It sounded like a hundred thousand people talking at once: whispering, muttering, shouting and taunting. They talked over each other and drowned each other out, so that they blurred into one long stream of grating noise. Thomas was finding it difficult to hear what the tinker was saying.
'There are things you need to know, boy,.' the man shouted over the babble of voices. 'So listen well.' He gripped Thomas's arm even tighter.
'You can't sell it,.' he shouted. 'You can't give it away and you can't throw it away. Someone has to take it. They have to come to you. You have to make it as difficult for them as you can or it won't go.'
'What are you talking about?' yelled Thomas. 'Where is that noise coming from?' But even as Thomas asked he realised the truth. The noise was coming from the demon bench end.
'I found the damnable thing in the Kasbah in Tangiers twenty-two years ago,.' continued the tinker, raising his voice even louder. 'I threatened to kill the fellow who had it if he didn't give it to me, and I killed him afterwards for passing it on to me, knowing what it was. But, of course, I know now that the demon will drive a man to do almost anything.' He stared at the bench end, his eyes flickering, wincing at memories he wished he could erase.
'I can't say why I ever wanted it in the first place, but it seems to choose us. I just knew I had to have it. I hope you get rid of it sooner than I did, lad, I really do.' Something like regret flickered across his weathered face, but only for an instant. He leaned closer to Thomas, but even so, Thomas had to strain to hear his words above the din coming from the demon. The voices were starting to synchronise now, as if they had all been saying the same thing all along, but out of kilter. Random words and phrases loomed in and out of the general cacophony.
'Don't listen to . . .'
'Weak, weak, weak . . .'
'Kill him . . .'
It made concentrating on the tinker's words increasingly difficult.
'If you love your family, then leave now,.' he said. 'You'll hear things you won't want to hear. You won't know if they're true or not, but it won't matter; it will have poisoned everything. If you love them, get away - far away. He'll make you hurt them if you stay.' He stepped back, cocked his head sideways, making his neck click. 'Now if you'll excuse me, I must be on my way before that devil changes its mind.'
'Go on!' shouted the demon. The voices had now become one echoing whole. 'Run! Yes, run, you filthy, disgusting maggot! Run while you have the chance!'
The tinker turned and walked away, leaving the barrow where it stood. After a few moments, the monkey jumped down and scampered after him, scrabbling up and sitting on his shoulder, casting a backward glance at Thomas as he retreated into the distance.
Thomas looked down at the demon bench end as it screamed some disgusting accusation about his mother and Mr Reynolds from the library. Yet even as Thomas flinched at the creature's words, he was aware that he had always suspected something of that sort, though he could never have brought himself to voice it.
'You know it's true!' screamed the demon with a rattling laugh. 'But you could teach them a lesson. You could make them sorry. Those mouths that kissed, those lips that lied. You make them sorry, Thomas. They deserve to be punished. They deserve to choke on their filthy lies!'
Thomas put his hands over his ears but it made no difference. Old Mrs Patterson emerged from the porch of her cottage, blinking at the sunlight. She peered over the gate at Thomas. At first he thought her attention had been caught by the demon's screaming, but he quickly realised that she could no more hear it than Thomas or his parents could when the tinker was the victim of its torturous ranting.