His Little Singing Thrush
Two strong hands grasped my shoulders from
behind. I felt myself being pushed over the low parapet. Horror struck, I gazed into the
I knew it was my
uncle Tod before I heard his voice. It wasnt just the power of his grip. It was the
familiar smell of his hands. Sort of metallic and gunpowdery.
bugger! he spat down my neck. Just you let me catch you here once more and Ill
throw you down no kidding!
I believed him.
Id have been about eight years old then. I dont remember what had drawn me to
the well at the end of his and aunt Maviss garden. I suppose that like most
youngsters I was fascinated by anything deep and dark, more so if you couldnt see
Later that day,
when he returned, mellow, after two hours at Butchers Arms, he spoke to me again. He
wasnt angry like he had been. But he was certainly out to frighten me.
what I said about the well. Theres no water to he had from it now. Not since they
drilled the bores for the new estate. But dyou know what is down there, boy? He brought his faced
close up to me. The was a dampness on his brow, and beer on his breath.
I shook my head.
lad! Poisonous snakes! Just one bite would kill you. Theyd be all over you. You
wouldnt stand a chance
I took him at
his word. Even when I left childhood behind I avoided going anywhere near the old well.
But it wasnt too long after he caught me there that he left. He had a scrap yard
that for some reason a couple of property developers had their eyes on. Tod Drummond,
barely literate as he was, was cunning. He played the two off against one another, and by
all accounts made a killing when he sold it. Aunt Mavis wasnt sure just how much hed
made as it was a cash deal, and he didnt hang around to tell her. She put it about
that hed gone off with what she called a fancy woman. She was pretty
upset for the first few weeks after he left, but then settled into a kind of routine. If
you could call it that. She kept herself to one small room, and kept it clean and tidy
enough. But she let the rest of the house go. As the years went by it shed slates, gutters
and plasterwork like a moulting animal. The garden became neglected and overgrown.
For a long time
I made only occasional visits to my aunt. I was her only living relative, and I felt a
sense of responsibility for her. I felt sorry for her, too. Shed had a hard life
with uncle Tod. Shed been much under his thumb, and he had a nasty side to his
character, which usually showed he was drunk. Hed come home from the pub and knock
her about. Yet he could be affectionate too. In those days shed been in the habit of
singing about the house and in her little kitchen garden. My little singing thrush
uncle Tod called her when he heard her.
like to see her home in the state it was and I offered to help her with repairs, but she
always refused me. One day itll be yours, Davy. You can do what you like with
When I started
with the light engineering company in Sefton, just five miles away from where aunt Mavis
lived, I started calling in on her more frequently. She always made me welcome and
appreciated my doing the occasional bit of shopping for her. As she grew older she became
less able to get out and about. She had arthritis and was inclined to be unsteady on her
feet. She refused any other help and I guess I and my wife, Sally, were pretty much the
only people she saw. I wonder now if this had something to do with uncle Tod. She seldom
talked about him, but on the rare occasions that I referred to him, she was defensive. No
doubt there was gossip in the neighbourhood, and she wouldnt have anything said
afternoon, as I let myself in through her back door with a bag of shopping, I heard her
singing softly to herself. Her voice wasnt what it had been, but I recognised the
Hark the mavis evening sang
That was a
favourite of uncle Tods, wasnt it aunt?
She was pensive
for a moment. It was
She was Scots, of course. Burns. Set to
music by one of your English composers. She stayed lost in thought. Then
he was a good man
once. Gentle, even, would you believe it? Then the drink
got to him
was as well he left.
But he took everything, Davey. Left me with nothing. He had money. But I never found
he never left me with a penny. She looked away from me. All went on women and drink, I dare say.
You know Id
always help you out, aunt Mavis. I dont know how you manage at all on your pension.
She shook her head emphatically. But she never kicked up a fuss when I arranged for a few
bags of coal to be delivered to stock up the bunker outside the back door.
Not long after
that conversation things began to get busy at work. I sensed that there were some changes
afoot and Jim Denton, the owner of the business seemed anxious to get a number of orders
processed quickly. One afternoon he called me into his office. His jacket was slung across
the back of his chair and his tie was loose about his neck. His hair was more than usually
thanks for dropping in. Take a seat. He waved me to the chair opposite his at
the desk. Thing is, there are going to be some changes around here and you need to
straight to the point, Im selling the business. Langtons have made me an
offer, and its too good to refuse. Mary isnt as well as she was, as you know.
Id like to have more time with her. And this is my chance to get out and retire
great Jim! Im pleased for you. Mary will be thrilled, Im sure.
Jim nodded. But
he wouldnt look me in the eye. He must have known that his decision would have
consequences for me that wouldnt be so good. Langtons was a much larger affair
than Jims, and a competitor. The chances were that they would simply close the
smaller factory. And even if they didnt, I very much doubted that they would be
inclined to keep me on as manager.
this has come as a shock. Im trying to get an assurance out of Langtons that
theyll keep this set up running and hold on to the men.
hold out much hope? I mean
let me finish. They know that this company
is efficient and cost effective, OK. And innovative, too, thanks mostly to the work youve done. Youve got a great future,
David. If they decided there wasnt a place here for you, youd have no trouble
If his optimism
was genuine, I didnt share it. Yes, I could probably get a job. But it could be a
hundred, two hundred miles away. Sally would be devastated, and the kids would be upset
too, having to leave their friends and moving to another school. And then there was aunt
I stared at the
distance out of the window. No doubt Jim knew more or less exactly the impact his news had
had on me. Davey, he said, you know that I would far rather that you took over the business, for all sorts of
reasons. If you were in a position to match Langtons offer Id
snowballs chance, Jim. You know that. Ive a fair idea what the business is
worth what Langtons are offering for it. If I went to the bank and asked for
a loan that size, theyd laugh at me.
Jim took of his
glasses and polished them absent-mindedly. I could see that he felt awkward. Hed
been a good boss to me, and a good employer to the men on the floor. And I couldnt
blame him for making the decision he had. In his shoes Id have done the same.
make out, David. Any job you apply for, Ill give you a bloody fine reference. This
business owes a lot to you, and so do I.
that, Jim. Theres no need to worry about me.
Sally took the news badly, as I knew she would,
when I broke it to her that evening. She tried to make light of it, bless her, but I could
see that she was trying to sort out the implications of it all in her mind.
always thought that youd take over the firm entirely one day. Jim had such a good
opinion of you.
I think hes
more worried about his wife that he let on. I can see why a clean break is so attractive.
Particularly if Langtons are making the sort of offer I think they are.
start looking for another job?
might be sensible to put out a few feelers.
have to move? I mean, the kids are settled, and then theres your aunt. Shes
got no-one else, and shes really become quite dependent on us. And, Davey
just that Im
Im not too happy about her
called in on her today, and I talked to her again about seeing the doctor. And she agreed
Shes agreed to see a doctor? Thats
not the aunt Mavis I know
something must be up with her. Did she tell you what was
Sally shook her
head. No. But I didnt like her colour. Sort of yellowish. Davey I think
shes got jaundice. That could mean something bad, couldnt it?
The doctor at the GP surgery was inclined to be
reassuring. But I could see that he wasnt entirely happy. His decision to order a
raft of tests just to make sure suggested to me that he wasnt sure at
all. I played down my misgivings to Sally, but aunt Mavis herself had an air of quiet
resignation as I helped her into the car and took her home.
his tests show, I want him to be absolutely straight with me. If its bad I want to
know. Theres one or two things I need to sort out before I
worry, aunt, I reassured her. These days they tend to be honest and up front,
even if the news is bad. But Im sure it wont be. Like he said theres
lots of causes of jaundice. Often people get better with rest and a change of diet
often when its in people as old as I am. But well know soon enough, I suppose.
She was right on
both counts. Within two weeks she was told as gently as these things can be done
that she had an inoperable cancer. There was certainly some effective treatment she
could have that might give her a year or two. But she was quite adamant that she wasnt
having any of it.
In fact I think
she did not very much want to go on living. Perhaps because of this her health began to
deteriorate quickly, and within a month she was admitted to the hospice in Sefton, just a
short walk from where I worked. And it was from there, late one afternoon, that the sister
on the ward where shed been admitted telephoned me.
David Mason? Im calling about your aunt, Mrs Drummond. Shes taken a turn for
the worse. Shes quite agitated and shes asking for you. Can you come in and
I could be with you in, er, twenty minutes or so. Is she very bad?
not good. Shes got herself in a state. Just come as soon as you can without breaking
any speed limits.
Half an hour
later I was at my aunts bed side. For a moment it seemed she didnt know me. I
think her sight was failing. But when she heard my voice she seemed to become calmer.
Im glad youve come to see me. Theres something
OK aunt. Its me. Youre going to be fine.
She shook her
head. Her eyes closed. Its the end for me, Davey. But theres something
something I have to tell you.
that, aunt? Take your time. Theres no need to upset yourself
about the old fox, Davey
For a moment Id
no idea what she was talking about. The old fox? What old fox?
him, Davey. I shot him with the rabbit gun. He was
blind drunk. He came for me with
a knife. I shot him. Her voice grew weaker, and she seemed to drift.
you dont mean
Her voice fell
to a hoarse whisper. The old fox. Tod
the old fox
Her breathing became laboured, noisy. She
lapsed into unconsciousness.
looked in around the drawn curtains. She stepped over to my aunt and checked her pulse.
She turned to me. Best let her rest now. Shes comfortable not in any
I nodded. I knew
what she was telling me. Less than an hour later my aunt was dead. And on her death bed
she had confessed to me that she had killed her husband.
The police officer who interviewed me was
hardly overwhelmed by my account. In fact I felt rather foolish reporting it at all.
youre telling me, sir, is that your elderly aunt told you, just before she died,
that she shot her husband
about 15 years ago? Had you any reason to suppose she did kill him?
she ever told me before had made me suspect it. But with hindsight
know. It was strange that he should just have gone
as she always claimed, without ever any contact at all.
I had given all
the details as I knew them, and they were sparse enough. Little wonder the police were
sceptical. They recorded the interview with me and said that they would make some
enquiries and be in touch. I found myself doubting that they would even bother. In the
mean time I had other business to attend to. Id had a telephone call from a
solicitors office. My aunt had made a will, I was told, and would I come in to
discuss it. She had left a small estate, and I was the sole beneficiary.
all quite straightforward, Mr Donaldson, the junior partner, told me. There is
her property, of course, which she owned. And a small sum of money in a savings account.
And there is a letter addressed to you which I understands contains instructions about her
I was under no
illusions as to the value of her estate. The house was small, in disrepair and worth
little enough in the economic climate at the time. Sally had murmured to me that it might
make the difference so far as an offer to buy Jim Dentons business. Id shaken
my head. Theres no question of that, really. And shed not asked
evening, I opened the envelope and scanned through the short letter. Its significance took
time to sink in. Oh, God, I murmured. Sally looked up from her book sharply.
well, yes. If aunt Mavis did kill him, then I
think I know where she dumped his body.
The two police officers leaned cautiously over
the crumbling brickwork of the parapet and gazed into the well. Wed had to fight our
way through the brambles to reach it. I hadnt been near the place since my encounter
there with uncle Tod, so many years before. Yet an irrational dread reared up inside me.
sir? one of the officers asked me, looking up. I cant think theres
anything too bad down there. Its pretty much full of trash.
expected to see the collection of old cardboard boxes, empty pain cans and assorted garden
rubbish that nearly filled the well. It came to within a just a few feet of the parapet
who threw it all in there?
I shook my head.
Ive not come here here since I was a boy. My uncle made it clear that I wasnt
to go near it. Said it
it wasnt safe.
He was right there.
whether you think his body is down there or not, if Im going to have my aunts
wishes honoured Ill have to get it cleared.
your point sir. It would be sort of
disrespectful to throw her ashes in among all
There was the
sound of a vehicle pulling up out in the road. The officers seemed to have expected it.
Thatll be forensics, one of them muttered. Two white garbed men came
round the side of the house carrying heavy cases.
Best leave this to us now. If there are any
if there is anything under that lot, these guys will find
out pretty soon.
Id never have the stomach to do the job
that the police did over the next few days. I didnt ask what sort of state whatever
was left of uncle Tod was in, and they didnt tell me. I think that aunt Mavis must
have got his body into his old sleeping bag before she wheeled it down to the well in a
barrow, because they asked me if I could identify a piece of material they showed me.
Lying across the body theyd found the corroded remains of a .410 shotgun, and a
kitchen knife with a long, stainless steel blade.
Things moved on
quickly from there. Following an inquest the Coroner recorded a verdict of the unlawful
killing of my uncle Tod, and while it was never fully established that my aunt was the one
who had shot him, the police told me later that, so far as they were concerned, they werent
looking for anyone else.
I felt duty
bound to carry out aunt Maviss wishes so far as her ashes were concerned, rather
than have them interred in her husbands grave. The well, even after it had been
cleared, was not deep, and there was no water at the bottom. I couldnt bring myself
to just empty the little casket down it, and instead hired an expending ladder so that I
could place the box with at least a measure of respect against the wall at its floor.
deny that it was a scary experience. Ive never liked the sense of being enclosed,
especially in the dark. Id taken a flashlight with me, and after I had placed the
casket, it was in its light that I saw the two loose bricks in the wall of the shaft, just
a foot or two from the bottom. As I reached to prize them out, a gust of wind blew through
the tangled brambles that partly surrounded the wells mouth. The tremulous hiss
brought back, momentarily, a terrifying memory.
I muttered as the loose bricks fell to reveal what was hidden behind
No. Were still negotiating,
Jim Denton told me in his office a few days after I had finally had the well filled in. I
had asked him if the deal with Langtons had been completed. Theyre
stalling, I think. In the end Im afraid theyll drive a hard bargain. But
whatever it is, Ill have to go through with it. Marys no better, you know.
if I were able to offer you what Langtons had originally proposed, would you be
prepared to consider it?
He stared at me.
Davey theres nothing I should like more. But you told me you just werent
in the running. Whats changed?
lamented aunt was rather better off than Id thought.
My left hand
dropped to my pocket. My fingers clasped the small canvas bag that lay in it, and felt the
stones, hard and smooth, inside it. Yes, my aunt had been better off than I thought. Or
than she herself ever knew. Uncle Tods legacy of gemstones was too well hidden, too
well guarded, even if the snakes were no more than his fabrication.
Together Jim and
I stood up and shook hands.
it a done deal, Davey! Congratulations!
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