Every generation has to suffer old bores who predict the end of the world. Conversations begin with The youth of today….and usually involve the words ‘National Service’ at some point. At my Middle School we had an old soldier who used to work as a caretaker. He shuffled about in a tan overall stuffed with retractable pencils and tutted and sighed at our activities. The headmaster would make us stack recycled papers with him. He’d smoke of course and sip endless mugs of orange tea and tell us we wouldn’t have lasted five minutes against Rommel’s lot in the desert. I didn’t doubt it. The wehrmacht would have had far more efficient ways of stacking the Daily Mail.
Most companies employ someone like this and this type of mentality abounds in the police force, or did. This is the kind of man who believes experience – or rather 35 years of doing knack-all – gives him the right to do very little and pull everyone else’s efforts apart. When we stacked the newspapers the ink would stain our faces, hands and shirt-cuffs. We hated it. And the descriptions of our blackened faces could hardly be printed these days.
I wrote the following as a beginning to a story about one such man who lived near our school and, like a character from the Beano, took great delight in spiking our footballs……..
Old Man Sutton
I hadn’t chosen the easiest route. We could have sprinted back into school or off along the alley that led to the main road, but the last thing I wanted was some guy following me into school and accusing me of vandalism. He didn’t look as if he was built for speed, but you never could tell. Get over old man Sutton’s fence, cross a lawn, go down his alley and we were free. I got one leg over the fence top, while reaching for Brian’s hand.
‘That fence is crocked. It’s never going to hold our weight.’
‘It’s fine, now move,’ I said, stretching out a hand.
The builder was inspecting his car, stomping on the pavement in frustration. There was no going back.
‘Get off that bloody fence,’ a voice said.
I craned my neck, almost overbalancing, to see Sutton emerge from his back door waving a crooked stick. A bib or giant handkerchief protruded from his collar, suggesting he’d been enjoying a TV dinner.
‘Get off it you little buggers.’
Sutton was well known at our school and had a reputation for falling out with anybody. He was a retired police superintendent who shuffled the grounds of his house in a burgundy blazer, grey stay-pressed slacks and orthopaedic shoes.
‘Move it,’ I said to Brian.
I leaned over the fence and saw Brian’s trousers snagged on a nail.
‘Better take them off,’ I said.
‘Sod off, give us a hand.’
I started to clap, but Brian wasn’t laughing.
‘I’ve seen you. I know your faces. I never forget a face,’ Sutton said, advancing in sluggish steps around the perimeter of his vegetable plot.
‘It wasn’t me,’ I said, pointing at Brian, ‘he made me do it.’
‘National Service,’ Sutton said, ‘that’d do you the power of good.’
He was swinging the stick in arcs, scything though the air. I jumped from the fence, narrowly avoiding Sutton’s wheelbarrow. Brian strained and stretched pulling his weight up against the fence.
‘Hurry, it’s giving way,’ I said.
The fence panel bowed, leaving Brian’s chunky legs scrambling against the other side for purchase.
‘Help me you twat,’ Brian said.
Sutton was waving his stick, caught between pursuing us and returning to his house to phone the police.
‘No respect for other people,’ he said.
There were blobs of gravy stuck to his bib. A mass of clay and mud had stuck to his orthopaedic shoe. I tilted the wheelbarrow against the fence, climbed up it and grabbed Brian’s wrist pulling with all the strength I possessed. Brian stretched his leg to the point where he could get a trainer hooked over the top panel and pulled. I grabbed his other foot and pulled. Brian wriggled, heaved himself up and toppled over into the border.
‘My beds, watch my beds you little sods,’ Sutton said.
He raised the walking stick and brought it down with all the force he could muster. Brian shifted on all fours as the stick struck the upturned wheelbarrow with a resounding clang. I grabbed Brian’s wrist pulled him to his feet and turned to be faced by Sutton raising his stick high above his head.
‘You should have had the stick years ago,’ he roared.
I pushed Brian to the left as I took of right, leaving Sutton to cut the air between us like a geriatric Samurai.
‘Shit, is the gate locked?’ I said, ‘please don’t let the gate be locked,’ as I hared along the alley.
Brian lifted the latch and we sprinted out onto the street.
‘Cool it,’ he said, ‘take a deep breath and slow down, otherwise someone’s going to think we’re burglars.’
‘Right,’ I nodded.
We walked off down the street. I slung my bag over my shoulder.
‘Shit,’ Brian said, ‘my bag. I’ve left my bag.’
‘Where’ve you left it?’
Brian cradled his forehead in the palm of his hand.
‘I don’t know. It must be at Sutton’s.’
‘That’s bloody brilliant,’ I said, ‘nice one Brian.’
‘Leave me alone.’
Brian jigged on the spot as he patted his jacket and trousers.
‘Didn’t tear your trousers,’ I said.
He felt inside his jacket and threw his hands in the air.
‘My keys are in my bag. So are my books – with my name on them – and my money.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘I don’t know.’
Brian scratched his head.
‘What’s the time?’ he said
I told him there were fifteen minutes left of break. He nodded sagely and began to walk back toward Sutton’s house.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m going back to ask for my stuff.’
‘Are you off your head?’
‘No, Tom. But if I don’t get my keys I can’t get in tonight.’
‘You can stay at ours.’
Brian kept walking. I tugged his arm.
‘If you go in there you’re going to drop us both in the shit. He’ll have called the police and the school. He’s probably told them we were trying to break in.’
‘You don’t have to come in,’ he said, ‘I won’t grass on you.’
‘Great. It’s not going to take them long to work out who was with you, is it?’
Brian shook his arm free.
‘I’ll explain to him what happened.’
‘He won’t listen. You know what he’s like.’
Everyone at GBH knew Sutton. If a ball landed in his garden it ended up on the bonfire or spiked by his fork. He patrolled the perimeter of his space at breaks and lunchtime fortified by tomato soup or coffee from a vacuum flask. It was rumoured he’d turned the spikes of his fence to face the school grounds until the local education authority had intervened, and some said there were elaborate traps set for intruders throughout the garden. Sutton had planted tortured willow and hawthorn and greased a series of spikes along the roof of his shed, but whether there was broken glass set at the edge of the patio or a Second World War rifle trained on the runner beans was not known. Sutton used to have a dog called Monty, but the beast had bitten through its tether and made a run for it. Rumours about Sutton abounded and many thought the dog had been court martialled and hung for disobedience after making a poodle pregnant. Some said he was a submarine commander in the War, others said he’d reached the rank of Colonel in the Royal Artillery. No one, except Trevor, who sold Sutton his weekly pouch of tobacco, knew the truth, and Trevor wasn’t telling.