It was the scruffy trainers that gave away his identity, as the acrid smoke hid his face, all I could make out were the hands scrabbling with the rope and the dirty white footwear.
Dragging me outside into the garden, my saviour collapsed at my side. Both coughing and spluttering, I looked up, first to see the black smoke billowing out of the back door, then towards my rescuer, who I half seemed to recognise. A wild unkept ginger beard, a shock of white hair, broken yellow teeth and the unmistakable sweet-sickly aroma of a tramp – was this wild-man one of Joyce’s secret beneficiaries?
“Well, first thing we wanna do here Tom, is put out that blaze.”
Wondering how he knew my name, I jumped up and followed the Vagrant back inside. The fire was spreading, but it hadn’t yet caught hold. Taking the hose from the scullery (Joyce used it to wash down the stone floor in the kitchen) he turned it on full and attacked the base of the fire. Soon the flames relented. The place was a mess, but we had saved the cottage.
I watched as this strange, heavily built man, wearing layers of odd clothes, cleaned up as best he could. Eventually, he stopped and attempted to make good the window that he smashed to gain access.
“Listen, thanks for saving my life, but how do you know my name?”
“Because you know mine Tom, don’t you?”
I stared hard at his face. Then it hit me.
“Jesus Christ, Is that you? Big Pete?”
The toothless grin spread wider. It was him, my nemesis from my school days was standing here in front of me.
Grabbing me in an unwelcome bear hug, his vast frame enveloped me like some large smelly Grizzly. Standing back to look at me he said,
“I suppose I better tell you my story…”
After the curse you put on me, I never had no more luck. I know you said you lifted it after I give you that money but I never felt right after it. I left school and went to London, but I got no luck there, so I went travelling. Spain Italy, Greece, I went all over. I was happy in them places, But when I got home, that feeling, that feeling of things not being right, well that comes back, doesn’t it? Anyway, I falls in with a bad lot and I goes to prison, doesn’t I? It don’t matter why. Ok I’ll tell you. I was doing some check book fraud, pension book stuff too, you know, cashing in stolen pensions and the like. Don’t look at me like that, I knows it was bad. Anyways, I got out with no money, no home, no family, nothing. Then I gets to thinking, if it’s that curse that’s not gone, maybe, if I find the old bag what did it, maybe she can get rid of it for good, and maybe I can get everything back on track, so to speak.
Anyway, In my hostel in Liverpool, I heard off this tramp about this lady in Wales who his mother used to swear by, that she guided her and she was proper good. Now, I remember us laughing at you about you going to Wales to see Joyce and I guessed it was the same old bint.
Well I gets there and of course it is her. I explains my plight and she proper laughs, I mean proper chuckles – you can see her doing it can’t you, Tom? Anyway, she takes me into her confidences, gives me money and sends me back to Liverpool to keep an eye on you, doesn’t she? Anyways, she takes ill and I’m beside myself. You didn’t see me at the Church, did you? I was hiding, made sure you never seen me.
Any how, I don’t think her lifting the curse did me no good, cos I’m still a bit of a mess, ain’t I? But things are gonna change from now on.
I looked at Pete, one of the many lost souls who slip through the grid of life and descend into the darkness of sub-existence, the underground. But he was still smiling, still happy.
“How are things going to change Pete?”
“You know that letter she left in her will? The one that was addressed to you? Well she left me one too. But I was not to tell a soul. Apart from you of course. You know she mentioned taking as much rhubarb as you wanted? Well she told me the same. Here, grab this.”
Pete handed me a shovel. We walked over to the rhubarb patch. He started digging and I followed his lead. After half an hour I hit on something hard and metallic, buried about four-foot down. Pushing me out of the way, Pete lifted out a battered old black metal box.
Cleaving off the lock with his spade, he wiped his hands down his old tatty jacket and slowly lifted the lid. Inside, wrapped in neat plastic bundles, were packets of cash, I reckoned there was about five grand in each package. Pete started to stuff them about his person, looking around him all the time, as though there might be eyes on him in this deserted spot in the middle of nowhere. After he had emptied around half of the tin, he began throwing the remaining bundles at me.
“Pete, is this-”
“Frank’s money? Oh yes. You better believe it matey. Now fair’sfair, halves each, like I promised Joyce.”
“But how did you know it was here?”
” ‘take as much rhubarb as you want’ ? ” What did you think she meant? You didn’t think Joyce would just let all that money go back to that thieving bastard did you ? How did you think he got all this in the first place? He’s a bigger thief than You, me and Joyce all put together.”
“Listen Pete, I’m not a thief, and neither is Joyce.”
Pete stopped throwing the money at me.
“Ok then, give me back them bundles and I’ll keep them, or maybe you wanna ring Frank and let him have it? Joyce wasn’t a thief? Did she not tell you how she done it? All that cold reading and stuff? Listen, there’s one thing Joyce loved more than her cottage and her garden, and that my friend, was money. Now, do you want this Wonga or not?”
I said goodbye to Pete at the bus stop. I reckoned he had about fifty thousand pounds on him. I wished him luck and hoped he would make good use of it, but feared that maybe it would do him no good at all.
Before I left, I went up to my tiny room, where I found an old rucksack into which I placed the last of my belongings.
On the train back to Liverpool, I fingered the rucksack nervously, hoping that Frank wasn’t waiting for me at the station.
That tramp by the Duck pond near the hospital, that must have been Pete. He was there keeping an eye on us. Such loyalty, but was he just about the money? The big pay day? No, I reckoned on him loving Joyce as much as I did, don’t you?
Now, today, you find me happy in my own house (with no mortgage on it, thankfully).
I work from home now, my clients come and see me in my front parlour, where I dispense tea and sympathy. Mrs Parker is due in at half past, she is desperate for news of her Mother, who I believe, sadly passed away not three months previously….