SHORT STORIES: The Mucklowe Gap
Every other day for the last thirty-six months Stanton’s sole job had been building a gap into a wall at Mucklowe. It was definitely the same gap. The width might have strayed the odd inch in the struggle but the gap’s purpose had remained unchanged, and that’s how he knew it was identical. Because the wall had been built across public access land, the gap had been a right-to-roam necessity and was constructed in accordance with the footpath at the top of the field.
As a dry stone waller of some considerable experience, Stanton’s material of choice was limestone. The client – farmer Bentley – had originally requested gritstone for the sole reason that sole trader Steve Clifton, the cement merchant, had promised he could acquire it on the cheap. He knew a bloke, who knew a bloke, who presumably knew a bloke who grew gritstone from seed in an allotment on the side of some A-road. Stanton had assured Bentley that gritstone couldn’t possibly be obtained at the price quoted by Steve Clifton the cement merchant, nor Mr. Bun the baker or Master Bung the brewer’s son. Especially not in Mucklowe, an area veined with thick dykes of limestone. In truth, the quote had actually limboed the trade price but Mucklowe was, geologically speaking, a limestone area, and artistically Stanton wouldn’t betray the landscape by erecting a gritstone wall. In a sales pitch to the farmer he’d found himself professing that working with limestone was “an altogether sexier building technique.” More random. More interlocking. For reasons unknown, Stanton’s description of the limestone kama sutra seemed to gun Bentley’s engine because within the hour he’d been sold a limestone wall.
The wall was built under the periodic gaze of Steve Clifton who, much to Stanton’s annoyance, would park up by the gate and eat his sandwiches most lunch times. On one occasion early in their coexistence, he’d beckoned Stanton over to his van and tried to sell him some cement. Leering out of the cab like a pervert ice cream man, he’d eyeballed the purity of Stanton’s craft and made a passing remark about the frailty of man. Having once boasted that he could sell cement to a dry stone waller, Stanton’s assertion that he “didn’t need glue” infuriated Clifton.
At a rate of three-metres-a-day, the wall had been erected in just under three months. The problem was the gap. It kept moving. Stanton would leave the wall unattended to visit another job and seemingly overnight it would redistribute the access. Being only thirty-six months old the wall was a toddler and therefore one expects a certain amount of disobedience, but this was positively rebellious – teenage in its conviction. Remarkably, the gap would always return to the same location, a gentle spot in the centre of the field where geography had momentarily abandoned its Art Deco gradients in favour of a minimalist horizontal.
At first, Mucklowe had struck Stanton as an odd little place but during that initial three months of walling he’d grown very fond indeed. The Vestibule, a guest house some three miles from the wall, had proved to be a comfortable centre of operations; however, since the ordeal with the gap he’d been forced to be less extravagant with his funds and rented a caravan by the bus depot on the outskirts of the village. This location was within a more agreeable proximity to the wall, although Steve Clifton obviously knew the bloke who knew the bloke in charge of maintenance and would often pull in for diesel which he unashamedly didn’t pay for. It seemed to Stanton that Steve Clifton lived in a parallel, cashless economy; a builders merchant Rumpelstiltskin who span cement into gold. Every business in the village had his adhesive DNA all over it. Outside the newsagent stood an offensive fortification meant to resemble a wall. The top was peppered with sea shells that had been depressed into the structure by Clifton’s heavy-duty thumb while the cement was still wet. Apparently, he knew a bloke who worked on a fish market because Mucklowe was well over a hundred miles from the coast and none of the shells were particularly ornate. Stanton had seen enough of Steve’s portly thumb in greeting situations to know that it bore more than a passing resemblance to the man himself. He’d gifted the post office with a giant concrete envelope. Leaning against the shop front and blocking out a quarter of the window, the concrete rectangle was only discernible as an envelope because Clifton had once again molested it while wet; ploughing a giant ‘V’ into the rectangle with his shire horse thumb. The car park housed his most abstract piece however. A hollow concrete cylinder with Welcome to Mucklowe thumbed into what he must have deemed to be ‘the front’. Surrounding the greeting, he’d set postcards of the village, each protected inside a small transparent plastic bag. Inevitably, each bag had been overwhelmed by condensation and now Welcome to Mucklowe was bordered by dozens of tiny steamed-up windows. The whole community resembled a questionable art gallery, where Steve Clifton was the artist in residence.
Nevertheless, the caravan was warm and really quite comfortable. Pulling his eyes over the typeset of the local paper Stanton examined the classifieds: Chipboard panels (scrap wood). Collection only or I will pick up – please contact Clarke. Bath with broken leg – please contact Howard. Wanted: one night stand – please contact Arthur. Three swift taps on the back window indicated to Stanton that there was a phone call waiting for him. This was the system he’d established with the bus depot. In return, he kept an eye on the place in the evening. Keen to maintain his side of the bargain, at the outset he’d ventured out a couple of times a night with a torch and done a sweep of the premises. However, as the autumn virus infected trees and daylight, his security post had been largely regionalized to the caravan, manifesting itself in generous looks out of the window when the mood took him.
“Morning Stanton. Sorry to trouble you on your day off.”
“Same place. Right in the centre of the field.”
“You want me to sort it today or can it wait until tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow is fine. I just wanted to let you know is all. You said to keep you updated.”
“Appreciate that. Thanks very much. See you tomorrow then?”
“Aye, see you then.”
The problem occurred the same week the wall was finished. The gap was the final detail to pull focus. Prior to that it simply looked as if the project was in progress. It was only with the construction of a wall much shorter in length some two feet away from the main structure that the brief pregnancy came to term and the gap was delivered into the world by midwife Stanton. As with all babies, the gap’s first movement was messy. It seemed to have relocated to the centre of the field in a hurried manner and sat slightly askew, hooped over and out of breath. As a farmer, Bentley had experienced plenty of teething problems with new walls and asked if Stanton would stay on in the village a while longer so that he may have him on call to correct the issue should it reoccur. Remaining on the payroll on a part-time basis, the situation suited Stanton. Initially, through friends of Bentley, he’d picked up extra walling work and by way of word-of-mouth was now receiving enquiries about patch-up jobs from land owners surrounding villages. Much to the displeasure of Steve Clifton, the phone in the bus depot had become Stanton’s unintentional office. Despite the composition of two sculptures for the bus company – sleeping policeman at either end of the depot – Clifton didn’t have phone privileges.
The following morning Stanton made his way out to the farm in his small Bedford van. Wondering how long this guff about the gap moving of its own accord could play out for, he’d decided to put forward a new theory. One based in reality. He wasn’t entirely sure if Bentley bought into the idea of the wall’s autonomy anyway. Not fully. Stanton had never actually claimed that the wall was alive any more than he’d suggested that it was reanimating itself; it just seemed to be an unspoken premise between the two men. From time to time Bentley would test the water with conversational half-questions such as “I expect you’ve seen a lot of this sort of thing in your time?” to which Stanton would reply with a half-scripted set of non-committal answers. On more than one occasion Stanton had articulated his discomfort at being a burden on Bentley’s finances and suggested several other payment structures that might suit the farmer better. Bentley wouldn’t hear of it however and insisted on sticking to their arrangement, and so it was that Stanton remained a part-time employee of the farm.
As usual, Bentley greeted him at the gate and backed him to the shed adjacent to the farmhouse. Banging on the back of the van to let Stanton know to subtract motion from the manoeuvre, he went round to meet him at the cab.
“Straight to it? Or are you coming in?”
“Coming in if you don’t mind.”
Bentley led the way to the farmhouse kitchen and lit the hob with a match.
“You’ll be wanting a biscuit with that will you?”
“I’d expect so, yes.”
Bentley shook up the barrel and offered it to Stanton, who selected a couple of shortbread-jam hybrids.
“I’ve been thinking about this wall of yours.” Began Stanton. “What if we’ve been approaching it from the wrong angle altogether?”
“How do you mean?”
“I’ve got a theory. It might not be correct, but it’s worth investigation.”
“I think you might have a jogger.”
Bentley thought for a moment.
“I see. And that’s bad is it? You’ve seen this kind of thing before I expect?”
“It might explain the movement of the gap.”
“What would our jogger want with a gap? Is he trying to steal it?”
“Could be a woman.”
“I don’t think the purpose is to steal it as such. My theory is that our jogger has run the same route for a long time now. One day he, or she, encounters a great big wall in their path. They dismantle the area of wall immediately in front of them and fill in the gap at the top of the field with the loose stones.”
“And this has happened before has it?”
“Not to me personally, but I’ve heard stories.”
“So you’re saying we should set a trap?”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
“We leave the gap where it is. Realistically, how much of a problem would it be? I know the ‘official’ access is at the top of the field, and that will remain the same on maps of the area, but would it really matter that much if it were in the middle?”
Stanton underlined his point using the two shortbread circles he gripped in either hand as a visual representation of the gap, moving them in parallel from the top end of the table to the middle. Casual philosophy and biscuit architecture held no sway with Bentley however, who shook his head and explained that he had to go meet with one of his dairy buyers. Finishing his tea, Stanton made his way up the field. A good twenty minutes walk from the farm, it felt far removed from the rest of Mucklowe and Steve Clifton’s public art. Soundless transport made imports and exports to and from the village, truant chimney’s smoked in empty streets, and as he made his way along the route, the church spire trod a beat round the village green like a silent policeman. When he reached the field, Stanton dismantled the gap that had been filled in at the top end and moved all the stones into the centre. Next came the ritual of construction that he cherished the most: stone selection. Correcting any mistakes in a dry stone wall invariably means disassembling down to the level of the error. Therefore, the selection of the correct stone for each position is critical. Stanton assembled the stones on the ground like unfastened jigsaw pieces and working from this as a guide, the gap was filled within a couple of hours.
Before collecting his van from the shed he knocked on for Bentley but there was no answer. Not fully wanting to return to the caravan Stanton decided to take the van for ride out to The Jolly Executioner. The pub sat about a mile from Mucklowe, did a reasonable ploughman’s lunch and would fairly quiet with it being a Wednesday. On his approach however, Stanton’s heart sank. There, in the car park, was moored Steve Clifton’s van. He let his own engine run for a couple of minutes while he contemplated going back to the caravan but he’d come this far and considered it a shame to be forced out of some quality tuck for the sake of an awkward few moments with the local cement merchant. Once inside he ordered a pint and a ploughman’s. Selecting a table in the snug he settled in with the newspaper and got halfway through an article about a reservoir being moved in Boradmelton when all of sudden the seat opposite was under enemy control. Looking up from his paper, Stanton was blinded by thumb.
“How do, fella?”
“Afternoon, Steve. What can I do for you?”
“More a case of what I can do for you.” He said leaning back. “More a case of what we can do for Bentley.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“I bumped into him this morning on his way to see a man about a cow.”
“The dairy buyer. He did mention it.”
“Told me all about your theory, he did. The jogger.”
Clifton moved a piece of Stanton’s cheese from one side of the plate to the other. Let it rest for a second and then ate it like a grand master of pub-grub chess.
“It’s a line of enquiry.”
“I bet it is. Cushy little gig you’ve got there isn’t it?”
“I enjoy my work if that’s what you mean.”
“One way to look at it I suppose.”
“Is there a point to all of this, Steve? Because I’ve just come in here for a quite pint and a spot of lunch.”
Clifton leant in and let Stanton feel the full wetness of his breath. The pale ale ambience of each syllable.
“It seems to me that we might be working together for a while. Partners, like.”
“Not the way Bentley sees it. Had a word in his ear. Bit of concrete in that wall of yours and no jogger is getting through.”
“And he bought that did he?”
“Said he’d give it some thought.”
“In that case, I don’t think we have anything left to say to each other, do you?”
“Buy you a pint, partner?”
“No thanks. I’ll stay on my own. I’ll be seeing you, Steve.”
“Aye, you will.”
With that, he scooped up his empty, flashed his thumb-twin at Stanton, and sat with the regulars at the bar. Only when Stanton reached the end of his meal did Clifton leave. Sure Steve had done this on purpose to sabotage his enjoyment, he reflected on the detour to the pub as a fully comprehensive write off. Thanking the barman he stepped out of the front door and stopped by the medieval execution’s block to consider his options. This accessory to murder gave the pub its name and had inhabited this spot since the eleventh century. For no reason whatsoever the block had been raised on a bed of concrete and elevated to waist height. Clearly another work by Clifton, it was one from his less literal period, circa the post office. This one had functionality at least. A concrete block supporting an executioner’s block; it was almost meta in its delivery. Certainly less offensive than his other sculptures, it was still unnecessarily dreadful. There were jobs Stanton could have been getting on with. Patch-ups that required a couple of hours of his time, however work felt distasteful to him all of a sudden. Determined not to let the afternoon be spoiled he undertook a full evaluation of his options and settled on heading back to the caravan. As he made his way round the side of the pub into the car park Stanton became aware that the passenger door of his van was open. It had been snapped to its furthest point and floated like a giant Polaroid, the window of which was yet to reveal it’s secrets. Further surveillance confirmed that a figure was snuffling around the inside of the cab, most probably in the glove compartment judging by the placement of the feet. Wrapping his fist around his keys so that they protruded from his knuckles Stanton called out to the assailant.
For a few seconds all was still in Mucklowe until gradually the giant Polaroid developed and Steve Clifton’s head emerged looking back at him through the window. Staring out from the picture Clifton pulled on the sweat band he’d just found in Stanton’s van.