Authors: Norman Collins
Tags: #Cities and the American Revolution
The Sun is lost, and the earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world's spentâ¦
âTis all in pieces, all coherence gone.
The first hint that there was anything wrong â seriously wrong, that is â came before 7 am on a sunny Friday morning; and, at the time, the hint was not taken.
At 6.50 precisely, the milk-float belonging to Amalgamated Dairies drew up outside âBriardale' in Byron Avenue, Richmond, and one of the company's most reliable drivers, a Mr Meehan, got down with âBriardale's' regular two pints and a carton of orange juice held ready in his hand.
Because it was late April and the weather, though fine, was still chilly, Mr Meehan wore a grey knitted scarf tucked into his green and white AD uniform. Like its neighbours, âBriardale' was set back a little from the road and a row of ornamental cypresses helped to screen it from passers-by. For a matter of moments, therefore, Mr Meehan's milk-float was out of sight, and it was just as he was putting down the orange juice that he heard a sound that he
recognized. It was the sound of someone tampering with the hand-brake.
Mr Meehan did not hesitate. He ran back down the drive, shouting out as he did so, âWhat's going on there, what's going on?'
But he was too late. The hill on which Byron Avenue stood is a steep one and already the milkfloat was in full motion. Milk-floats are not built for speed. Their springs and shock absorbers cannot stand up to more than about ten mph and, by the time Mr Meehan caught sight of it, the float with the Amalgamated Dairies symbol on the side was already cruising downhill at well over fifteen. The milk bottles in their wire crates were jangling together like cymbals.
Less than a hundred yards from the quiet of Byron Avenue lay the busy main thoroughfare. In his mind's eye Mr Meehan could see the impending disaster â the impact with some passing bus or lorry, the shattered glass, the build-up collisions with on-coming traffic, the arrival of the ambulance, the police car, even possibly the fire engine. Heroically he started in pursuit. But he was not in condition, and it was soon obvious that the milk-float was outdistancing him.
Not that he need have bothered. The Area Gas Board was once more re-laying one of its main conduits down the whole length of Byron Avenue. A row of little yellow flags fluttered there, with red
warning lamps strung along wires as for a garden party.
The milk-float hit the first of the yellow flags and then went down the line demolishing the flags and the red lamps one after another, like a bulldozer. Then the milk-float hit the Gas Board's portable compressor unit. The compressor unit was more massively built than the milk-float. It was battleship-strong. Even so, it was wrenched from its position and left lurching over on its side. But as for the milk-float, that was demolished. Bottles, cartons, eggs in boxes, tubs of yoghurt and packs of butter were scattered across the roadway. What was left of the milk-float came to rest upside down, its wheels still spinning.
The danger to traffic in the high road was thus over. But it was not of a multiple pile-up that Mr Meehan was now thinking. It was something that he had seen â or claimed to have seen â just before the milk-float collided with the compressor unit.
Mr Meehan did not vary in his story. Over and over again he repeated it to the Police Inspector, the Dairies' own divisional superintendent and the insurance assessor. As soon as the leading yellow flag had been uprooted â so Mr Meehan affirmed â first one, then two and subsequently three small brightly-coated creatures had jumped off the milk-float, rolled over on the grass verge beside the roadway
and, shaking themselves, had darted off into the shelter of one of the adjoining gardens.
âLike little chimps, they was,' he kept asserting. âLike those bloody little chimps on the TV.'
It was then only as an afterthought that it had come to him.
âAnd they was whistling,' he said. âLittle bursts of it. All three of them. And you could still hear them even when they was out of sight.'
Less than a week later â on May Day to be exact â a second, strange unrelated incident occurred, unrelated at the time, that is.
It took place in Regent's Park in the gardens of the London Zoo. The Aquarium beneath the Mappin Terraces was the scene of the occurrence. At 6.30, when the Gardens closed, everything was as quiet and orderly as usual. The Aquarium was already shut. Only the green accommodation lights over the doorways had been left on. Separated from the public gallery by the panes of thick plate glass, the scene on the service side was just as orderly, with the oxygenation pumps whirring and gurgling away in the semi-darkness.
The Head Keeper, a Mr Batchelor, clearly recalls having looked back over his shoulder to satisfy himself that everything was in place before closing the outer door for the night. When he returned next morning, however, the sight that confronted him
was a very different one. There were pools of water everywhere. And not only water. Fish. The bodies lay there, wrasse, cichlids, angel fish, glistening in the light from the doorway. And all dead, quite dead.
But it was only then that Mr Batchelor realized the extent of the disaster. For the two nearest tanks which should have contained sea bass and golden carp, were empty; empty, that is, except for a shoal of unremarkable, medium size, brownish-looking fish, hardly showing up against the pebbles. Mr Batchelor, however, recognized them instantly. They were his pride, his prize exhibit, his killer fish, his paranha. Over night, someone had been giving them an entirely unauthorized outing.
The alarm was immediately sounded and it was just as promptly answered. One of the junior keepers from the Reptile House next door came hurrying over, and ex-Inspector Weekes of the Zoo's own Security Corps, was already on his way. Alert as ever, he paused only long enough to warn the Curator of the fact that something in his department was evidently gravely amiss.
Inspector Weekes lost no time in carrying out his investigation. Finding everything satisfactory on ground level, he got hold of a step ladder and climbed up onto the roof of the outbuildings. And it was just as he thought. One of the skylights, the one second from the end, was wide open. The catch had clearly
been forced and little slivvers of metal were lying there on the asphalt roof. But it was still puzzling because the skylight was exactly nine inches square and whoever, or whatever, had been lowered through the gap, and had come up through it again, must have been very small indeed. The ascent had somehow been managed, however, because all up the wall were little smears with a fish-scale or two left sticking there.
The Inspector suspected monkeys, but the Curator would have none of it. He stood there in the shambles of what should have been his nice tidy service area and kept tapping his thumb nail against his front teeth.
âWhat I can't understand,' he said, âwas
they did it. They haven't used the buckets. Anyone who tried just with his hands would have had his finger tips bitten off. Right down to the knuckle, he would.'
The third incident â again at the time apparently in no way connected â took place on the 14th of the month at the Jubilee Baths, Hornsey. Once more it was an early morning discovery.
Because the day was a Saturday, Mr Hedges, the senior baths attendant, arrived a few minutes before his appointed hour of 8 am. Saturdays were always busy days for Mr Hedges because of the nine o'clock Children's Session, followed by a full hour of Diving Instruction succeeded in turn by Back-stroke and
Free-style Practice. Also, on this occasion, there was all the laundry â towels, bathing slips, and loose mats from the cubicles â neatly packed in wicker hampers left over from last night's Gala Display and now ready for despatch.
The entrance hall looked exactly as it should have looked except that the long rubber runner leading from the front door needed straightening. A quick sweep down, and the children would find everything ready for them when they came stampeding in. The only thing that struck him was that the temperature of the place was lower than he would have expected, almost as if someone had turned down the thermostat without telling him.
He went through to the pool to consult the thermometer. And immediately he saw the reason. The Emergency Exit at the back was wide open. This in itself was remarkable because there were strict orders that the emergency door should be kept locked whenever the pool was not in use.
But the open exit door was as nothing. It was the pool itself that he was left staring at, and it was a pool no longer. It was one gigantic washtub. The hampers â all six of them â had been emptied into it and the towels, the bathing slips and the cubicle mats flung into the water. Even the hampers themselves had been pushed over the edge and were now floating there as half-submerged wrecks. A mass of bubbles, like sea foam, marked the spot at the shallow
end where a large packet of soap powder had been thrown in. The whole place, too, smelt suffocatingly of disinfectant, and Mr Hedges saw that two six-gallon drums of the stuff had been spilled into the surrounding chaos and then tossed, or rather rolled, over the marble edge.
Mr Hedges went at once to the telephone. He knew that it would be useless at that time of day to talk to anyone at the Town Hall. It was therefore the Police Station that he called, and he was not sorry that he had done so. The Sergeant came round at once and agreed with Mr Hedges that there was a shocking lot of vandalism about. It was only on the matter of the open emergency door that he proved difficult. He kept coming back to the subject, asking how Mr Hedges could be sure that just for once he had not possibly have forgotten to turn the key.
Then Mr Hedges remembered something else. And he told the Sergeant about it. On the previous night he had done his regular check-up of the heating and the ventilation, and had even given the grille in front of the pay-box an extra shake to make sure that it was fully fastened. He had then turned the lights off and was in the act of closing the main door when he felt something brush past him.
âLike a dog it was,' he said. âAbout terrier size, only harder. And it made more noise than a dog
would have done. More like footsteps. A sort of clattering.'
He had then switched the lights on again just to make sure but, as he had expected, there was nothing there.
Mr Hedges caught the Sergeant's eye, and stopped talking. The Sergeant, he thought, was eyeing him rather oddly.
The Rev Cyril Woods-Denton was asleep in a deck chair at the end of the garden; or rather, he was just on the point of waking up. And he was cold. The day had suddenly clouded over and gone chilly, and Mr Woods-Denton wished he had thought of taking a rug with him.
His sleep, moreover, had been a restless and disturbed one. Twice he had started up nervously, each time sinking back more unsettled than before. And all because of a remarkable dream that he had been having.
In the dream the gnomes around the small ornamental pool had suddenly come to life and were moving about. The tallest of them, the fisherman, had put down his rod and was going round stirring up the others. The oldest of the party, a stooping, almost senile gnome with a gnarled white beard had, oddly enough, been the first to respond. He had quickly given a couple of sharp kicks to rouse a comparatively junior gnome, the one who spent all
his time lying flat on his stomach with his head supported on his hands, gazing moodily into the pool. That left only the smallest of the four, the baby of them all.
He was the one who had been dropped when the vanman had delivered the complete set. His right arm had been snapped off almost at the shoulder and his eye had been so badly damaged that the Vicar's sister had made a plastic eye-shade for it. That was why, remembering his disability, she had called him Little Nelson.