Herein enclosed ‘The Pen is Mightier than the Nerd’, part thirteen.
Jennifer McLaird and her world took on a life of its own during this story – as I said, nothing was planned, and her past, her habits her ‘hoose’ and her glowering nephew bubbled out of expediency; which I think is pretty much the best way to create things.
I don’t know if this story belongs in the ‘proper’ world of Mervyn Stone. I did the novel purely as an exercise to use ‘new media’, and I never assumed that I would keep any of the facts that grew out of it. I threw things about with sheer abandon, because I felt completely free to contradict all, should I feature Jennifer in a ‘proper’ novel.
Nevertheless, Gus was such a splendidly fun character, though I do say so myself, I find it difficult to think of Jennifer without her angry bearded nephew standing behind her shoulder.
Finding Gus’s house wasn’t hard. He lived with Jennifer.
From making a few calls, I learned that Gus was a man who never quite grew up. He’d never married, lived with his parents, and when they died in a car accident, he’d ended up with his aunt.
He was a very moral and God-loving man, who seemed to have sprung forth on this Earth one day, fully formed, complete with beard, and gone through life neither adding nor taking away anything from it.
His suits were eternal; he didn’t drive, he didn’t smoke, and he didn’t do anything else.
He was the man with no carbon footprint.
I rang the bell, but the door didn’t open. Instead there was a crackle from a speaker by the door. ‘Yes?’ It was Gus’s towering voice.
‘Mervyn Stone,’ I said crisply. ‘I’d like to talk to you about Alistair’s murder.’
There was a ponderous silence from the speaker. I could just hear the distorted whoosh of slow breathing from Gus.
‘Ah told you tae stay away frae this business,’ he rumbled at last. ‘Ah have nothing tae say tae you.’
‘I’m sorry. That’s not how it works, Gus,’ I lean very close to the speaker.
I hope the words he’s hearing convey some kind of sepulchral menace. At my end, all I can hear are my somewhat nasal tones, and they sound a bit weedy and pathetic.
‘A murder has been committed. You have given me proof that you were there that night. I believe our competing demands for my Chelsea boots precipitated a chain of events that ended with Alistair’s death.
‘All I want to know is if you were a catalyst for that death, like myself… Or you were ultimately responsible for that death.’
The speaker rumbled again, broadcasting a voice from a different age.
If he’d told me that we had just declared with Germany, I’d have believed him.
‘Ah am a righteous man. Ah had nothing tae dae with that man’s death.’
‘But you were there that night,’ I say. ‘You took the boots. You even paid the money you agreed directly into his bank account, even though he couldn’t spend it. Your conscience was clear.’
More static from the speaker.
‘Unless you explain to me what happened, I’ll just have to let the police talk to you. And they’re far less interested in ‘facts’ than me.’
‘You might get arrested. How will Jennifer cope without you?’
Another rumble from the speaker. ‘She will cope just fine.’
I changed tack. ‘Okay. But how will YOU cope without HER?’
That hit the spot. For a man who has devoted his life to protecting himself from the outside world, the idea of being in prison without his beloved aunt was an unbearable thought.
There was a buzz, and the door clicked open.
The inside of the house, was old; almost calcified. It was over-decorated and under-used, like a pub in the middle of nowhere.
Heads of animals with varying expressions of surprise adorned the walls.
A grandfather clock squatted under the stairway, like Gus, it was making a low rumbling noise that seemed too large for it – then it chimed, deep and mournful, emptying bongs into the air.
Gus appeared, still wearing his cheap suit and his tartan tie. Action figures changed their outfits more often than him.
‘You’d like some refreshment.’
It didn’t seem a request, more a statement of fact. This sense was re-enforced when he didn’t wait for my answer and left the room.
He didn’t indicate that I should follow him either, but I assumed I should.
I entered a parlour, which was crowded with china artefacts; plates, bowls, kittens. I knew I would have to concentrate hard if I wasn’t going to break anything in the next few minutes.
The table was set. It was overburdened with tea making equipment; crowded with teapots, hot water pots, milk pots, cold water pots, white sugar pots, brown sugar pots, pots for sweetener, cups for tea, cups to rest the tea strainer…
It looked like an insane chess game.
I thought they only did that kind of thing in posh hotels, in order to make the sight of a waitress huffing back and forth hauling saucers, pots, and cups across the room justify the extortionate cost of a cup of tea.
Gus poured tea into a cup from the pot, then poured water from a jug into the pot, and then poured milk from a jug to the cup.
‘Say your piece, ask your questions, and then go,’ he rumbled, adding cream from a pot into the jug of milk.
I looked around. ‘Where’s Jennifer?’
‘She is at rest,’ he said, sipping his tea.
I glanced at my watch. It was eight o’clock. A bit early to go to bed, I thought.
Perhaps she gets tired in the evenings.
I decided to come straight to the point. ‘You were there that night. The night of Alistair’s death.’
Gus looked at me impassively. A muscle in his jaw spasmed, twitching his cheek and causing his tangled mess of a beard to jump, like a rodent being rudely awoken from hibernation.
‘Ah cannae tell a lie,’ he said at last. ‘Ah was there that night.’
‘You were there to pick up my boots. I’ve been told you were buying them from Alistair. For a quite a bit of money.’
This time he didn’t speak. He inclined his head. The rodent on his chin moved lower, creeping towards the rich tea biscuits on the tray.
‘So what time did you get there?’
‘Late,’ he said. ‘Ah was late. Ah found the door open, and the lights on all over the hoose.’
‘Ah found Alistair wi’ his head caved in, bludgeoned to death, and you slumbering nearby, clutching that block of Perspex.’
My mind boggled, as did my eyes. ‘And you did…nothing?’
Gus slammed his cup on the table, rattling the tray. ‘Of course ah did something! Ah am a verra moral man. Whit do you tak me for?’
‘Ah phoned the police, and waited ootside in ma car until they came. Then ah drove away.’
I looked at him coldly. ‘But you didn’t think to wake me, or to discover what had happened?
‘For all ah know,’ he growled. ‘Ah could have been waking a dangerous murderer from his slumber. Far better tae alert the authorities, lock the door, and watch the building in case you wake up and escape the premises. That was the moral thing tae dae.’
I smiled coldly. ‘And did the – ahem – moral thing include taking my Chelsea boots from the scene of the crime?’
Gus made a snort. ‘The boots were not part of th’ crime scene. They were upstairs waitin’ for me to collect.’
We had made a gentleman’s agreement that he was tae sell th’ boots tae me. He had already taken ma shilling.’
‘Ah was there tae collect th’ boots, so collect them ah did. Oor transaction was not part of the man’s demise.’
‘So you say,’ I muttered acidly. ‘I happen to think it has a direct bearing on the crime.’
A thought struck me. ‘Were the bedrooms upstairs tidy when you went looking for the boots?’
‘They were, not’ Gus said. ‘They were messed up. Ah assumed a burglary and a fight had occurred.’
I sighed. ‘Pity. I hoped the murderer might have been still in the flat when you were there, hiding. You didn’t see anyone, did you?’
‘Ah did not,’ Gus shook his head slowly. The rodent on his chin jumped from one shoulder to the other.
He folded his arms. ‘So…If that’s all you have tae say to me, ah’ll thank you tae leave.’
‘No it’s not all I have to say,’ I snapped. ‘I haven’t even got started.’
I gestured around the room at the startled stags protruding from the walls, the china, the brass bed warmer dangling from the fire place.
‘It doesn’t strike me that you’re that much of a ‘Vixens’ memorabilia collector,’ I said. ‘I don’t see much evidence of it here.
‘No. Ah dae not approve of your television programme,’ he said. ‘Ah find the contents and subject matter licentious in th’ extreme.’
‘’Licentious in the extreme’ was the effect I was aiming for,’ I grinned.
‘So I can see you’re not even a fan, let alone a collector, but you were prepared to pay enough to keep Alistair’s shop out of debt… for a pair of my old Chelsea boots? Why?’
Gus said nothing. He stared into space, like a soldier from an old war movie who’d just delivered his name, rank and serial number.
‘Fine,’ I snapped. ‘I’ll just go to the police. I’m sure they’ll be interested in talking to you. And your aunt.’
‘Let them come,’ he growled. ‘It’s too late noo. You’re the cause of that.’
He came to a decision. ‘Ah will tell you, for noo it makes no difference tae her and I.’ He got up and walked around the room.
‘Mah auntie Jennifer is a paragon of virtue. A moral person, like myself. But it was not always thus.’
‘She cavorted with men, she drank tae access, but that was not the worst of it.’
‘She was a thief many times over.’ He scowled. ‘The doctors called her a ‘kleptomaniac’ but let us call it what it is.’
‘She stole thousands of poonds worth of goods from shops, libraries, public buildings…If it wasnae nailed doon she would take it.’
He wrinkled his brow. ‘Come to think of it…That carpet at McEwan hall. That was nailed doon, and she took that too.’
‘She was eventually arrested, charged and sent tae prison. Her photo was on the front of all the local newspapers.’
‘She brought shame on the name of McKnutt.’
‘That was the real reason why she changed her name from Gertie tae Jennifer.’
‘Tae expunge her own shame, and tae start again on the straight and righteous path.’
‘She did not want any of her employers from stage and television tae know of her compulsion – even though they all sin in their own ways.’
‘For ma part, ah helped her in her cause. Over the years, I retrieved every thing she stole and returned it tae the rightful owners and nothing more came of it.’
I was starting to realise where this was going. ‘But she didn’t stop stealing. Not completely,’ I said.
‘I’m guessing on the odd occasion she helped herself to things, probably completely random things…
‘Ridiculous things she didn’t have a use for…’
‘Say…my Chelsea boots..?’
Gus didn’t say anything, but I knew I was right.
The irony of it was staggering. There’s Alistair, pulling his hair out and working his sweaty socks off, trying to forge my boots…
So I would get a pair and shut up…
But the first thing the purchaser of the REAL boots would do the moment he got them…was hand them over to me!
If only Alistair had asked Gus what he intended to do with my boots, the whole mess would have been averted, and who knows?
Alistair might still be alive.
‘So…’ I continued. ‘Was that why you wanted to get back the autograph in the Perspex? Because it was a reminder of her old identity?’
‘Indeed so,’ said Gus. ‘These people have nae business raking up th’ past.’
‘Even though it matters not tae her career now that people know she used tae be Gertie McKnutt, she still brought shame on the McKnutts.’
‘I hadn’t heard of Jennifer’s past life, and I knew her for years,’ I said gently.
‘It is not well known. Not yet,’ he scowled. ‘Only a handful have become aware of it. Alistair and his family. A few of his friends…’
‘But they see only an interesting piece of the past. They do not see it as a secret shame to be hidden…’
‘But ah can see they are all fallen sinners, each and every one of them.’
‘The Perspex brick was there, in my hand, while I was unconscious,’ `I said. ‘Why did you not take it when you had the chance?’
‘Because ah am NOT a thief!’ Thundered Gus. ‘Have you learnt nothing here today?
‘Alistair bought it from a man who bought it from another, and so on. Mah auntie is correct in what she said; once she gave her signature away it was nae longer hers tae take back.’
‘Alistair refused tae sell it tae me. Not frae any price. And I cannot take it, so there is nothing I can dae aboot it.’
‘Nothing anyone can dae, but tae avoid the shame of it all.’
‘We as the McKnutts can only dae the moral thing.’
I frowned. ‘I don’t know what the moral thing is. I don’t understand.’
‘Mah auntie understands. She understands that shame cannot come oot. That was why she lies at peace upstairs.’
I went cold. I suddenly realised the wording Gus used when I entered. At rest.
‘What have you done!’ I said, springing to my feet.
‘Just something in her bedtime milk tae help her passing. Ah gave it to her before ah opened the door to you.’
‘As ah said. It’s too late. Her guilt has been expunged.’
‘You bloody lunatic!’ I screamed. I was already running up the stairs, three at a time, my ribs throbbing like a jet engine.
I was in danger of blacking out.
I threw open the doors, one at a time. At the third attempt I saw her, lying in bed, her milky face protruding from a massive eiderdown.
I pelted in, staring at her. ‘Oh bloody hell, no’ I said. ‘Oh Jenny. Oh bloody, bloody hell, no.’
I sagged beside the bed, grabbing the edges of the eiderdown, sinking into it.
Then her eyes snapped open.
I stared at her.
‘Mervyn?’ What are you doing in my bedroom, you naughty wee man?’
‘Och, I’ve heard stories, but I never thought you’d come knocking at MY door!’
‘He poisoned your milk. Gus. Your milk. He did that,’ I gibbered. ‘He wanted you expunged.’
I look at her, then at Gus, staring impassively from the landing.
‘Erm…What?’ she crinkled her little face up.
‘Your nephew was trying to kill you. He poisoned your milk.’
‘My milk?’ she looked at her bedside table. But there was nothing there. ‘What milk?’
Gus was holding the milk.
‘Ah think Mr Stone has misunderstood me,’ he growled. ‘Ah was just mentioning that, as you’d fallen asleep, ah’d better put your milk back in the fridge. We dinnae want it tae go off an’ poison you.’
I looked at Jennifer, to Gus, and back again. I couldn’t say a thing. If this was a cartoon I would probably be going ‘but…but…but…’
But I couldn’t even manage that.
‘Mervyn,’ Jennifer said, with a trace of pity. ‘You puir wee man. You’ve been doing so much sleuthing of late you’re starting tae see murderers under the bed. Literally!’
She chuckled amiably and struggled out of bed, despite Gus’s protestations.
She foisted more tea on me, this time with sugary biscuits, while Gus lurked in the background like a hairy wall.
It’s an odd sensation, having a potential murderer offering me custard creams, but I often feel like I’m in a ‘surreal meets slapstick’ movie.
‘Dada Day Care’ would be a good name for it.
So what to talk about? I could hardly keep on accusing her nephew of trying to kill her, so I just laughed off my silly impulsiveness.
She took it in good humour, as she takes everything in good humour. She certainly agreed Gus looked very murderous at first glance.
‘Och, he’s a pussycat!’ She cackled. ‘He wouldna hurt me. He looks after me so well. My goodness, he tried so hard to buy my autograph back from Alistair. The money he offered, but Alistair wouldna budge.’
‘All he did with it was lock it away. What’s the point of having something that precious and locking it away in a wee cupboard? I’d show it to the world!’
Gus flinched, and dropped a tray. Jennifer didn’t exactly sound very ashamed of her dark past. I was getting the impression that Gus’s moral absolutism wasn’t exactly shared by his aunt.
I smiled at Jennifer. ‘For some collectors, simply the knowledge they have it is enough. That’s how art thieves prosper.’
‘There’s always some character who’s happy to hide a priceless treasure away so they can look at it in secret.’
She folded her face into a smile, and the full force of her twinkle hit me. She really was – is – a lovely woman.
I passed a Gus on the way out. I gave him my best glare. The squinty one. ‘Don’t touch a hair on her head,’ I hissed.
Gus looked at me for a long, long time – and then said something incredible.
‘Get them tae part with that autograph…and ah’ll think aboot it.’