Dead and eviscerated cats stuffed with old snail shells are being left in gardens around town. Police Community Support Officer Howard Dawson sort of investigates.
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Indigo Dreams Publishing
Howard Dawson is a Police Community Support Officer. Less respectful schoolchildren call him Not-a-Proper-Copper, even Tosser-Copper, his seeming function to offer a reassuring uniform presence to the less discerning citizenry. Both his in and out-of-uniform life is drift, losing his days and nights in reveries - on the true purpose of the offshore turbines, what goes on in a chapel with no posters, on shops left empty, the noises coming from strange allotment beasts....
Howard is stuck in small town Marraton caring for his epileptic and disputatious father. Then a dead cat, then another - gutted and stuffed with white snail shells – start getting left in people's gardens. These dead cats are initially not seen as serious enough to warrant investigation by a full time officer. It falls to Howard, being the only body available, to puzzle on the peculiarities of these several dead cats. And while so doing he has his other police work - taking details of goods stolen (musical instruments among other items), delivering talks to schoolchildren on graffiti and vandalism, preventing fairground mayhem…
“A part to tear a cat in, to make all split.” William Shakespeare: A Midsummer’s Night Dream
“Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance.” Lewis Carroll
No-one questions a man in uniform who stands and stares.
A man in uniform can stand on the same street corner for an hour or more and no member of the public - not even a curious child: infants are taught early to be wary of men in uniforms - no-one will ask him what he is doing there. Cars and buses will pass, people will step around him, and still he will stand and stare. Whatever the man in uniform is staring at is official business. None of theirs. He is not to be engaged in idle chatter.
No-one questions a man in uniform who stands and stares. And certainly not when the uniform is that of the police. To question such a man could place them, by their asking, under suspicion.
A guileless member of the public might interrupt the policeman’s staring to ask for directions. Even for the time. Although the latter is increasingly unlikely. With the advent of cheap digital watches and the ubiquity of mobile phones - practically every mobile phone sporting an optional clock face - to not know the time could draw attention to oneself. While an unrecognised visitor being lost, probably not.
No-one questions a man who stands and stares. Even if that man is Howard Dawson. Because, although Howard Dawson’s uniform might initially resemble that of the regular police - sturdy black shoes, pressed black trousers, black belted jacket, breast pockets for notebooks and pens, radio clipped to lapel, luminous yellow traffic vest over jacket, and on his head a flat-topped cap with chequered band and badge - the silver shoulder insignia, and especially the large plasticated label on his back, declares Howard Dawson to be, not a run-of-the-mill constable, but a ‘Police Community Support Officer’.
The title is as misleading as his uniform. As a Police Community Support Officer Howard has no truncheon, no handcuffs, no CS spray, and no powers of arrest greater than that of any other member of the general public. Reporting back to his Sergeant is the most power that Howard has. Whoever the Sergeant that day, that shift happens to be.
And insofar as quasi-military ranks go Howard is more a private than an officer. Probably not even a private. He was told, when recruited, that he was to be the everyday public face of the police, the everyday public presence. All that Howard has to be is his uniform.
Not that there is, for this Police Community Support Officer, a community to speak of, at least not in the sense of a natural community grown around a common purpose, the fellowship of a single industry. The mines around Marraton, and the furnaces within Marraton, were all long ago shut down. And with fish stocks depleted there are but a few trawlers left in the too-large docks. Those few trawlers rarely venture beyond the brown coastal waters. Even the fish factory has been mothballed, is awaiting redevelopment.
All that remains of business in Marraton is a few fusty shops, occasional instant-heritage attempts to attract tourists, and the flat grey roofs of a few warehouses and component factories on the two industrial estates.
Adult unemployment runs at 30%. Officially. But what with those registered disabled - that is marginally unfit for work - with those partially employed, and adding in those taking discreet early retirement the percentage is probably twice 30%.
But who’s to tell? People in Marraton might guess at their neighbours’ lives, but by and large they keep to themselves. Those not in work don’t want their neighbour to know precisely what statistic they are, which benefit claimant they are defined as. While those in work don’t want to make their possibly unemployed neighbour feel any worse by sight of their wage packet. What others don’t know can’t upset them, hurt them. Nil community.
No-one stops to talk to Howard as he stands and stares.
Howard is given his orders for the day by whichever Sergeant is on duty; and on Howard’s eventual return to the station it will be that Sergeant or another Sergeant who will glance over Howard’s notes and grunt. Sergeants both male and female, as part of the Sergeant course, are taught how to grunt.
Some grunts are accepting: “Thought as much.” Some grunts segue into a cynical sigh: “Might’ve guessed.” Some grunts, with lip-curl accompaniment, are contemptuous of the information contained in that day’s notes. While those grunts that cause the chin to lift slightly, the back almost imperceptibly straightening, are an expression of outrage.
The grunts that Howard has thus far received in his police career have been mostly of the Sergeant-proven-right, thought-as-much variety.
If on arriving where he has been sent and someone needs to be arrested Howard will have to press a button and talk into his chest. A police car will come, siren possibly wailing, and Howard might then get to assist in the holding of a struggling felon’s arm. Possibly - more excitement - back-up will be called for and more sirens nee-narring will see a van arrive. And as the doors are closed on the miscreant Howard’s police colleague, the full-time car-driving warrant-possessing Constable, might give Howard a nod of approbation - the fully-fledged PC equivalent of a pat on the back.
Aware of his status, clad in his beyond-question uniform, on this day-to-day working level, with its absence of task-oriented urgency, to fill his working hours Howard Dawson PCSO has drifted into the habit of standing and staring. This day he is standing and staring at the cracks between the pavement slabs in Elizabeth Street.
Elizabeth Street is a street away from the High Street, has fewer passers-by to wonder at his standing and staring.
Today’s Sergeant earlier sent Howard off to enquire about a dead cat.
“Some old biddy’s phoned up in a right state about a dead cat. Check it out.”
When he has roused himself from his standing and staring Howard will proceed to the address given and will write down the details in his police issue notebook and take those details back to the Sergeant.
When he has roused himself.
“There are some of us who don’t live in the moment, who live a little ahead, or a little behind.” Henry Miller
Yesterday mimulus were blooming in the Elizabeth Street’s pavement cracks. Each bloom was a buttery yellow trumpet with, at the back of its throat, large almost orange freckles. Much like the freckles on some ginger people, freckles so big that they almost join up to obscure the white skin below.
Yesterday Howard stood here in Elizabeth Street - terrace row facing terrace row, doors opening to the pavement - here where there is a slight recess with 3 steps down to a black cellar door, and in the cracks between the grey-green pavement slabs, in row at right angles to row, there ochre mimulus bloomed.
This day there are none. Nor any sign of their having been. Even their green thumbnail leaves have gone.
No flowers have been wilfully kicked aside and left to wilt and die. Nor have the blooms been plucked by a squatting child - squeezing the neck of the bloom to open and close its throat, give it a mimic voice. A child would have left behind the leaves within the cracks.
No green leaves, no pale stalks, no tidy heap of sweepings where the cracks have been scraped. Nor was this perpetrated by one of the town’s head-down road sweepers. Further along Elizabeth Street Howard can make out small round hillocks of moss in some of the pavement cracks. But here, where the mimulus bloomed, is only the glint of grit and the dark smears of disturbed algae.
Midway down Elizabeth Street is a square of light from the gap where cars park behind the High Street club.
Howard asks himself why anyone would prefer a swept, weed-free pavement outside their front door to nature’s gift of self-seeded mimulus? Answer: the Marraton householder who has been taught to keep their front step clean and their windows shined and can see no further.
Saddened, Howard sighs and reminds himself that he has a dead cat to enquire about. Howard knows better than to call the enquiry an investigation. To do so would elicit both Sergeant grunt and Sergeant sneer.
The Ropery Lane house is the first of three pebbledashed bungalows and the only one with faux-leaded windows. Behind the three houses is a wasteland of buddleia and broken brick.
Along the pavement are low garden walls, also pebbledashed, the pebbledashing like dried porridge. The second bungalow along has levelled their front garden to park their round-ended caravan. Behind the low wall of this first garden a mass of different coloured bushes are in careful disarray, the garden path of crazy-paving neatly edged. A pear tree has been trained along the old foundry wall.
Leastwise Howard has been sometime told that the wasteland behind was once the old foundry. He was also once told that it was the old steelworks. And maybe neither were right. He has never bothered to find out, has no interest in the towns’ history. A curious incomer would probably have found out more about Marraton than Howard, who has never actually set out to learn anything about the town. All that he knows of Marraton has been absorbed perchance.
The woman - black skirt, fawn jumper - who answers the two-chime doorbell does not have her hair in careful disarray. The hair is more a helmet, precisely back-combed and lacquered. Howard knows this because his wife used to do the same, furiously attacking her morning head with a round black-spiked brush, lips corner-twisted in seeming anger, before the long blast of spray up over her head when she would turn in the slowly descending cloud of lacquer droplets.
Howard’s wife’s hair was a dull stiff blonde. This woman’s hair is dyed black. And this woman isn’t as old as Howard had expected from the complaint and the address. Late forties? Not an old biddy anyway. Howard thinks he may have seen her around town.
“You called,” Howard flips open his notebook, already out of his breast pocket for the address, “about a dead cat?”
Like most Marraton people her face remains expressionless as she speaks. Mouth opens and closes, vowels flat as her face, eyes staring steadfast.
Howard looks behind him at the bushes and over to the side at the pear tree. He can see no cat, turns back to the woman.
“I’ll put my shoes on,” she says; and she goes back up the hall in her fluffy mauve slippers.
The hall carpet is thick and brown-patterned, a gold thread running through it, an almost similar pattern in the flock wallpaper. A house ordered and silent.
The woman comes back wearing flat black shoes. She puts the door on the latch. “Over here,” she says. “I was checking,” she turns to see if Howard is following, “to see if the pear was setting.”
Octagonal stepping stones have been set among the bushes. One bush is red-leafed, white-veined. One has pink-scented blossom.
The cat’s there.” She stands with her back to the pear tree. Wires hold the tree’s black branches like a many-armed crucifix to the old foundry’s brick wall.
The woman points to below a spiky green bush with drooping yellow flowers. “Somebody must’ve chucked it over the wall.”
“Not your cat?”
“Cats give me the itch.”
A round-headed ginger tom, stiff and thin in death, is lying on the dry ground between the stem of the spiky bush and the inside of the pebbledashed low wall. Small grey leaves and tiny yellow petals like flakes of gold have fallen around it.
Howard squats down, his back catching the bushes behind him. He pokes at the dead cat with his pen. The carcass is as stiff as cardboard.
“Hit by a car?” Howard says. “Somebody dropped it over your wall?”
The woman, standing both feet together on an octagonal stone, simultaneously grunts and tuts: “Get hardly any cars down here.”
Howard stands. “Not what you think happened?”
“Have a look at its stomach,” she says. “When I saw what they’d done I left it there, called you lot. Some proper sick bastards around.”
Howard, puzzled now, squats again.
The cat’s ginger fur is flat. On its large round head one ear is squashed down, eyes almost closed, a rim of green eyeball showing.
“Thought the same as you at first,” the woman says above him. “Was going to throw it in bin. Soon as I went to move it though, out they fell.”
“Them snails,” the woman says with such impatient emphasis that she almost stamps her foot.
Using the back end of his pen Howard lifts the cat’s uppermost back leg. From the inside of its back legs is a black gash along the belly of the cat, the closest fur matted, Howard assumes, with old blood. On both sides of the gash many of the hair strands, white to golden, have been stuck together in black points. As Howard lifts the leg higher the gash in the fur opens slightly and a white snail shell slips out. Now Howard notices two other white snail shells below the cat’s body. The woman must have dropped the cat back on them. On one of the round snail shells is a dark smear that could be old blood.
“Got hit by a car,” Howard slowly stands, “somebody pushed it over your wall. Stomach got split on impact, snails found their way in there while it was down here.”
The woman does now stamp her foot: “They weren’t live snails!” She turns her head away in exasperation. Her black hair doesn’t move independently of her head. “Them snails were dead when they were put in the cat. Somebody put ‘em in there. They split open the cat’s belly, gutted it, put old snail shells in there. Why?” She glares at Howard. “Why would anyone do that? And why put it over our wall? Eh? Why our wall?”
Despite her agitation, her voice rising, her eyes opening wider and a slight increase in colour to her cheeks, the woman’s expression hasn’t otherwise changed. Still the flat stone face.
Howard had started contemplatively nodding as she was speaking. “Let me have all the details,” he indicates that they should go into the house. “What day was it when you found the dead cat?”
Police Community Support Officer Howard Dawson is stood on café corner - in the dip of Byng Street, where it slopes up one way to the social flats, the other to Market Square.
Up there Market Square is, Howard knows, prettily cobbled now. It has a chrome fountain bubbling in its centre and slim young trees on three of its sides. The old Market House, left dilapidated for decades, was demolished three years ago and the Square restored to what it never was. The new cobbles are too proud, twist ankles.
Off to one side of the Square is the red sandstone police station. White and blue-striped police cars and four-by-fours will be parked outside in Clark Street. Police Community Support Officer Howard Dawson, standing on café corner makes no move towards the out of sight police station. He is still looking up Byng towards the Square.
On the corner opposite the café is an off-licence. Of the three men who have gone in and come out of the off-licence only one has overtly looked across at PCSO Howard Dawson - as if refusing to be intimidated out of his day time drinking by sight of a police officer. That one man straightened defiantly and slowed his walk. Of the other two men, one went sideways quickly on his way, the other dropped his chin into his wide shirt collar.
Howard pays them no conscious attention. Nor does he turn his head to any of the people stepping casually around him. None greet him. Not in his uniform.
It’s not that the people of Marraton are not friendly. They are friendly - in that they make a display of friendliness. Cheerful greetings will be shouted to one another in the street, often mock miserable, a four stroke catechism: “Rain forecast again!” / “No change there then.” / “Does it ever?” / “Next Tuesday I heard.” Token laughter.
All up and down the cross-roads around Howard are such greetings. In many cases just a simple exchange of “Hiya.” All outwardly friendly. The inhabitants of Marraton however don’t invite one another into their homes, not for a chat, not for coffee. Their ‘friendships’ exist in public places - in pubs, in social clubs, in cafés - in those gatherings where women cackle at men’s rumble-told wisecracks.
For a while after Howard left school, for a while after he finished at the factory, old classmates, recent workmates, would stand before Howard on pavements and ask him what he was up to now, tell him of what they were doing now. As time has gone on though they have simply said “Hiya” at nearby sight of him. And that rarely now, and not at all when he is in uniform.
If they choose not to recognise him under his cap, and even if he doesn’t acknowledge them - being in his uniform - he certainly knows who they are. One new constable said that Marraton people look like their own caricatures - noses too big for their faces, ears too big or too small for their heads; a town of bad dentistry and dated hairstyles, of bodies bent, twisted or bloated. The still-straight young of course dress to look like everybody else their age. Although Howard could guess their family, could name them if asked. He doubts anyone will ask.
Howard continues to look up Byng towards Market Square.
Where Oake Street crosses Byng the afternoon sun has cut a wide bright gully. Up the rest of Byng the shadow from the roofs and chimney stacks form a castellated line. While the shadow from the tall Quality Store is like a black trench across Byng.
The longer Howard has looked at that sharp-edged shadow the more trench like it has become.
Howard does not want to go up Byng Street and step into that shadow. Supposing he does and it isn’t a shadow, but is indeed a deep trench? A trench painted to look like a shadow?
How would anyone paint a trench?
But say an old mine, long tunnel even, has collapsed just there? Within the shadow? Stepping into what he thinks is shade Howard will go falling, spread-eagled down into another dimension. His cap turning end over end after him…
Too filmic. More likely he will go slipping and tumbling, trying to hold onto both its sides. In which case he will probably survive the fall. But what if his slithering brings rocks down after him and they block out the light? In that eventuality he might well lose his sense of direction and, instead of finding his way back to the old pit head, he could go wandering out under the sea bed, banging his head in the dark as the gallery roofs get lower and lower. And how will he know, in that coal-black dark, when he has reached the end?
No-one is coming down or walking up Byng to pass through the trench-shadow. The sky above Market Square is blue, the street on either side of the shadow yellow.
The rising shriek-wail shriek-wail of a siren is coming along Coulton, the main road that passes through Marraton. Howard bends his ear to his lapel radio. Hiss and crackle. He taps it. Hiss and crackle. No call coming for him to attend. Traffic police, he decides, off to another shunt, cones at the ready.
The sirens are stationary a moment at the lights, then they cross the railway bridge and fade away into flat Haypot.
A silver car appears briefly, crosses Byng to go on down Oake Street, the next street up from café corner.
Howard turns and proceeds at a measured pace along the High Street to the china shop on the corner of Star.
This corner is in the same dip, but now where he looks up Star Street to Market Square there are no straight-edged shadows reaching from pavement to pavement. Where the shadow of the old chapel does reach across its edges are smudged by buddleia and some red-headed valerian growing out of its grey cement sides.
As Howard walks up Star Street he starts thinking of divesting himself of his uniform jacket, of the lockers in the brick extension beside the red sandstone station, thinks of what he will tell this afternoon’s Sergeant of the dead cat in Ropery Lane...
Almost home Howard is still wearing his black uniform trousers and black shoes, but now has on his blue zipper jacket, undone, and no cap. Should he have had his cap on it would soon have got knocked off by the line upon line of washing strung across the cul-de-sac back alley.
Howard likes the washing. A warm day like today and with it all hanging still he has to step sideways between sheets and patterned duvet covers, breathes in the crisp sun-filled smell of them. And on a breezy day, with the sheets flapping and cracking, pillowcases like oblong balloons, the trousers and shorts get filled up by the wind, become empty puppets.
Howard won’t mention the washing to his father. Only set him off.
As he reaches the yard’s wooden door thought of his father has Howard glance to the spiked railings at the end of the alley. Bindweed coils part-way up some of the railings, a few straggly bushes of the one-time hedge behind. Beyond them what little smoke there is from the timber works fire is going straight up, leaning away over the low roofs of the industrial estate.
“Why they don’t bag up the ends and flog ‘em I don’t know,” his father will say of the trunk wedge-ends the workers burn. And when an east wind does blow the smoke down the terrace his father will say, “Smeech smeech smeech.” Repeating it, “Smeech smeech smeech.”
Howard knows almost word for word his father’s diatribe against the timber works. “Smeech smeech smeech,” he will say yet again, then, “Got nothing against them earning a living, and they’ve figured out how to flog the bark bits to garden centres. Can easily shovel them up though...” The bark is kept in dark heaps behind the pallets of square-ended joists, behind the stacks of clean neat planks. “...but what can they do with the odds’n sods trunk ends?”
And on, and on, his father will go, until the close, saying how particularly unfair it is on the street, and undoing his own argument, because most in the street have gas boilers for their hot water and central heating, “...not a single wood stove in the whole street.”
“So who would it be,” Howard has thought to but hasn’t asked his father, “who would buy the green off-cuts if not many people have log fires anymore?”
Howard did once ask his father how he knew that everyone in the street had gas boilers. He couldn’t imagine his father having been invited into their houses.
“Chimney pots,” his father said. “The little silver cap. Or you get the balanced flu sticking out the back wall. Not even a coal fire down here anymore. But we got that timber works bonfire going day after day. Smeech smeech smeech...”
Those householders with washing on the back alley lines keep a weather eye out for the direction of the smoke, will come out shrieking to one another the moment the wind shifts. In the back alley they too have long moans together over the burning of the wood-ends. Howard has also heard them complaining about the unsightliness of the triple-spiked railings, “Like a prison camp.”
As he closes the yard door Howard is still undecided what he will say to his father beyond Hello.
Howard has long preferred this back way into the house. At the front he has to step straight off the pavement into the house. Although there is a doormat just inside the front door, and although Howard always wipes his feet, after the dogshit debacle had his father cleaning every carpet for a week, and a week later Howard trod more in, Howard has become very aware that he is wiping dirt from outside inside, even if only on the front door coconut doormat. That tacky dogshit, pressed into the valley between the sole and the precipice of the heel, has twice stunk the house out.
In the back yard Howard can give his shoes a thorough wipe on the thicker and rougher coconut mat outside the back door. And, if left on that yard mat, the rain can wash the dirt through. His shoes will be taken off on the mock parquet just inside the back door.
When his father goes out, tie and jacket on, he prefers the front door. If he has to use the back alley he moans afterwards about having to duck under lines of washing. He says, “Just brushed my hair, then some trollop’s stained sheet messes it all up.”
Seeing Howard pass the kitchen window Howard’s father raises his hand in cursory greeting. Like a foot-stamping pony Howard takes his time assiduously wiping first one foot, then the other.
The smoke going away from the terrace Howard guesses that today’s rant won’t be about the timber works’ fire. But, having seen Howard come in through the yard, it could still be about the washing lines.
“Can’t get a car up to the back gate. Strangle you if you’re not careful. And who wants to see old Bessie’s baggy cacks..?”
His father’s tirades are like predictive texting, once begun Howard knows where they’ll go.
“Cup of tea?” his father shouts from the kitchen as Howard hangs his jacket on the back door.
“Please!” Howard shouts back.
His father has the radio on in the kitchen. Howard bends to pull the plastic-pinched lace ends, then heels off his shoes. Going into the living room he picks up the remote. The telly crackles alive.
As Howard is about to drop onto the sofa his father shouts something from the kitchen. Howard can’t make sense of it, goes out to the hall and around into the kitchen. His father hands him a mug of tea.
“I said I’ve made a hotpot.”
“Right.” Howard takes the mug of tea. The mug has blue irises painted on it. It’s the mug he is always given. His father prefers the mug with the pink roses.
“OK.” Howard takes a sip. “Had to investigate a dead cat.”
“You? Investigate? Been promoted have you?” His father bends to the oven. The potato discs atop the hotpot are not yet brown about their raised edges.
“Better if you investigated that ditch full of empty cans by the underpass.” The blast of heat from the oven has pinked his father’s forehead and cheeks, making the scars - through his eyebrows and down his flattened nose - look whiter.
“You’re supposed to liaise with the school,” he flicks the red check ovencloth over his shoulder, “so liaise about the kids drinking down under the railway. Though why...”
Howard stands with his mug in his hand waiting for his father to finish. After the opening exclamations his father’s rant could have gone two ways. It almost - Howard sensed the hesitation - went the other way with the word ‘promote’. His father shares the general public’s opinion of Police Community Support Officers.
On this ‘liaison’ tack though his father will move on to why the kids should choose that underpass to do their drinking in: “Not even anywhere to sit.” And he will end with telling how he and his schoolmate Sid, “he joined the army,” used to take bottles of Jennings Brown Ale out to the dunes. “’Course in those days you could still get money back on the empties. That way you didn’t get all the rubbish chucked in the side.”
And while his father delivers this particular version of his in-my-day past he will potter about the kitchen, finishing the washing-up, laying the kitchen table; and Howard will stand there in his thin black socks, waiting for his mug of tea to be cool enough to drain.
His father will have, almost absentmindedly, switched the radio off the better to hear himself talk. He will turn it on again when they sit down to eat. Thereafter it will be only derisory grunts or a short mocking laugh to various items on the radio news.