THE TANGLED TOWN
The first time I saw one of those pictures of a city (I think it was New York) in the early days of electricity, it was horrifying and fascinating at the same time. That mass of wires and cables draped and criss-crossed across the streets, between the houses, almost blacking out the sky, a labyrinth of tangled tendrils.
But that tangle is still there, and not only in mega-cities like New York, but in the smallest of towns; the most peaceful and staid looking of market towns and sleepy suburbs, the most idyllic of hamlets, even between one remote hill farm and the next.
It doesn’t carry electricity now, and doesn’t power and light and heat our houses. And it’s invisible, though sometimes I swear you can feel it and even hear it, but it’s there. It’s there hanging and intersecting and alive with shocks and crackles and it smoulders and sparks.
It stretched and arced across the square in the little town where I worked, before it had the chance to get into newspapers or onto the radio or even onto the Internet.
There had been a break-in at the jewellers. We had one of those old-fashioned jewellers that nobody ever seems to go into and yet everybody seems to have visited. Someone had broken the window (which was, I presumed, supposed to have had some kind of security alarm, but it seems it failed) and taken a tray of rings, and had coshed the assistant, Melanie Harrison, over the head. To our relief, Melanie would be fine. She had a mild concussion and shock, but no lasting damage was done – except, of course, she wouldn’t be fine, and a great deal of damage was done. Melanie was a shy, old-fashioned young woman, who had seemed perfectly at home sitting in her dark skirt and white blouse in a shop that had been there for over 100 years. It had been her little sanctum. I don’t know if anyone called it that before the break-in but they certainly did after.
“There’s been a break in at Scott and Salmons!” the word passed through the tangle above and around the town. “Poor Melanie has been hurt!” “They’ve taken a tray of rings!”
News like that made the unseen tangle tingle and pulsate more than it usually did, but it was never passive, never silent.
For several weeks now it had been alive and dancing with gossip about the new family on the new estate. We called it the new estate, it was ten years old, but in our neck of the woods that passed for new, and it still didn’t feature on some post code and location finders.
Mrs Sullivan, whose husband was chairman of the Residents’ Association but seemed happy to delegate most of the duties of it to her, had plenty to say about the new estate and even more to say about the new family. She was one of those neat, no-nonsense women who had probably never worn a pair of trainers or jeans in her life, and who had firm views on the correct order of the tea and the milk and the jam and the butter, whose holidays of choice involved stately homes and walking, or preferably both.
She was always very careful to put in her disclaimers. “I’m sure most people living on the estate are the salt of the earth”. Or “I was delivering some leaflets there the other day and everyone was perfectly polite” or “I don’t judge people”.
It goes without saying that there was always a “but”. Even when she didn’t actually vocalise it there was a “but”.
I don’t know quite how Mrs Sullivan knew quite so much about the “new family” – the Callaghans – but had long since ceased being mystified by such things. The Mrs Sullivans of this world quite simply have their methods and their contacts, and they’re usually fairly accurate. Most of the time.
I saw quite a lot of Mrs Sullivan as I worked in the library and she was a keen reader, with a particular taste for biographies of the aristocracy and bloodless murder mysteries. I knew as much, and not through any kind of deep intuition or professional canniness, but because she believed in telling me, about what she wouldn’t read as about what she did. I knew she was broad-minded “but” and wasn’t especially bothered by strong language “but”.
Like anyone dealing with the public, a librarian (okay I was technically a library assistant, but – I’m at it myself now – saw no harm in a little ego-massaging tweak!) has to be a diplomat. Somewhere in among those unseen tangled wires and cables there’s a tightrope, and it’s one we have to walk. Getting on Mrs Sullivan’s bad side was not a good idea (though I knew more than one person was less than happy about the “Residents’ Association Mafia” as I’d heard it called) but nor was conniving in gossip or besmirching others’ characters.
“Karen, you do know that Mr Callaghan has been in prison. Now I’m all for second chances but –“ this time the “but” alone was sufficient. “Handling stolen property, I believe. And that son of his – Wayne –“ There wasn’t even a “but” at this point, but the mere way she pronounced the name and slightly wrinkled her nose indicated that someone being called “Wayne” told you all you needed to know.
I may as well admit that on our one encounter I hadn’t exactly taken to Wayne. As part of a course he was on, compulsory as he was on benefit, he and the rest of the group had been in the library. They were under the charge of a diminutive tutor who would have given Mrs Sullivan a run for her money in the no nonsense stakes, and on the surface he hadn’t done a thing wrong, but his disdain, both for the course (and on that I couldn’t entirely blame him) and for the library were plain to see. It was also obvious that he was by way of being a leader in the group. I could see why. He was tall, quite good looking in a designer stubble, pierced kind of way, and when he forgot to grunt, quite articulate. He was used to being top dog. Come to think of it, he and Mrs Sullivan possibly had more in common than either of them would have cared to admit.
Still, it wasn’t appropriate (to use one of our boss’s favourite words) to indulge in character assassination. I very unsubtly changed the subject.
The town was genuinely shocked by the break-in at the jewellers. If anyone said we’d never been subject to any crime beyond a bit of apple-scrumping and an odd parking ticket, they’d have been lying, but an attack on a well-liked local resident and a robbery from a century-old local shop ratcheted things up. Mrs Sullivan who, credit where it’s due, could do uncontroversial things very efficiently saw to a collection for Melanie and she was presented with a massive bunch of flowers as well as a tactful donation to “tide her over” until she felt able to get back to work. The shop window was patched up within a day and repaired within a week, and at least they were insured. Surely it must have been some outsider, the hopeful message twitched across the unseen tangles and cables, not one of us. The attacker had worn a mask, - rather surprisingly, one depicting the muse of tragedy.
Melanie was quite clear headed and efficient as a witness, despite having been so shaken up by the whole sorry business. The robber was definitely male, of above average height, and with a local accent that she said, “Didn’t sound quite natural, somehow, as if he was putting it on” – not that he said very much. He was wearing dark coloured trousers and trainers that squeaked a bit. She’d have guessed he was young rather than old, but couldn’t say more exactly than that.
Mrs Sullivan was rather disappointed that the “young” appeared to rule out Robbie Callaghan – not that he needed any such “get-out clause” as he had an alibi that was about as watertight as you can get – at the time of the robbery he was in the next town, seeing his probation officer.
In a natural progression, she moved from the father to the son. True, Wayne, for all his insolent ways, as she called them, didn’t have any criminal record, but that could only be because he hadn’t been caught. And wouldn’t sounding as if he were putting on a local accent make perfect sense for someone who had only recently moved into the area? On that point, I had to admit, she had a degree of logic on her side. On the occasions I’d seen him he’d been wearing jeans and not trousers, but that didn’t signify, necessarily. Melanie had recalled that he was wearing gloves “Leather, I think – as much from the smell as the look” and there were, indeed, no fingerprints .
The inquiry seemed to have reached a dead end. Frustrating, but it wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last.
Though of course I’d have been very glad to help out with the enquiry, I never imagined there’d have been any way I could. I wasn’t even a witness. Time passed, and though we didn’t forget about it, initially it slipped from the front page of the local paper, and then out of its pages altogether. Melanie, with admirable fortitude, had gone back to work as soon as she could.
Our town was quite proud of its amateur dramatics group, and they had taken on a decidedly ambitious project that autumn – an adaptation of Wuthering Heights. There hadn’t been enough copies of the script, and at the library we had borrowed some from the far larger town twenty odd miles away. I said I’d deliver them round to the Town Hall functions room, where it was to be performed, and where they were rehearsing. As I walked in, “Edgar Linton” was giving one of his speeches. He was played by Mrs Sullivan’s son, Lionel, who wasn’t as good an actor as he thought he was, and no doubt would much prefer to have been Heathcliff, but projected his voice well and had a good memory for lines. He’d always been stage struck, his mother had once said, between maternal pride and a certain disapproval. Apparently they’d reached a compromise and he was going to study English and Drama at university. Just as a spark and crackle can suddenly traverse a tangle of cables seen or unseen, something can be a million miles away from your thoughts one minute and blaringly, glaringly obvious the next. Lionel was trying to affect a Yorkshire accent. It wasn’t ridiculous, not some kind of “eeh bah gum” parody, but it was still quite easy to tell that it wasn’t his natural speaking voice. And if you were trying to put on an accent – then it wasn’t necessarily because you had another obvious accent. It could be because you normally “talked posh”.
Who was likely to have a mask depicting the muse of tragedy? Well, Lionel certainly sprung to mind before Wayne did!
Before that day was out the tangle was twitching violently and convulsively again, and messages flashed and flooded around the town.