Kaeti and her companions inhabit a strange world; a 'theatre of the mind' where the unexpected is commonplace, where ghosts, vampires and even the odd goddess may be encountered at any turn. It is a tribute to the author's skill that Kaeti's world seems, at all times, as real as our own, sometimes uncomfortably so. Whether satirising the mores of the Thames Valley or exposing the curious antics of the publishing world, Roberts is equally at home. He explores the gamut of human emotions; high comedy alternates with terror, the most delicate of love scenes are set against the iron dreariness of Death Row. Always though, at the focus, is Kaeti; witty and resourceful, resilient and vulnerable by turns. Some characters may change their roles with lightning speed, like the players i n a repertory company - but Kaeti remains. As does London. Robert always displays a knowledge of a city haunted by its own past, and a love for its highways and byways, that will surprise old fans and win him many new admirers.
Release date: April 23, 2013
Print pages: 224
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Kaeti & Company
Wind’s getting up again, blustering round the pub. Sign starting to creak a bit in the big gusts. That means Force Eight, Nine. We’ve got our own Beaufort scale here. Raining again too, hard. Hear it rattle on the windows. Been a funny old year for weather. Trees didn’t drop their leaves till near on Christmas. Fields were still green too. Vivid. Sort of sickly.
Just seen to Chota, got her her bits. Saucer of milk, and that. Funny little beggar. Born the wrong side of the door, I reckon. Any door. Some cats are like that. I never thought Kaeti would rear her. She did though. Kept on. Even after we’d all written her off. Even her Mum. Used to come back midmornings, give her her feed. Never knew how she got away with it. That’s Kaeti though.
Kaeti’s my daughter. She’s dead by the way. Just three weeks before Christmas, it was.
Funny. Me writing. Not my sort of thing at all. Couldn’t see the point at first. Kaeti explained all that though. About actions. Said we weren’t supposed to see the point. None of us. She said—let’s get this right—she said what matters about actions is that they’re done. She said if she, well, spilled a glass of milk or scratched her knee or anything, anything at all, then it was always true it was going to happen. At that place, and at that point of time. Very particular about that she was. Because there are other Points, apart from those in Time. She said it was always true it would happen, no matter how many millions of years you went back. And it would always be true it had happened, no matter how far you went forward. Something about going on from where the Gotama stopped. Sitting right across from me she was, curled up on the settee. And looking solemn, solemn as I’d ever seen her. She’d lost me a bit by then. She said that didn’t matter though, nobody could get it all first time off. What mattered was that I believed. Another sort of belief. Something quite new.
She talked a lot about Time. Said you could feel it passing, if you tried. The minutes, all the seconds in ’em, all those actions going on, getting themselves recorded. Building something that was huge and getting bigger, something that could never be stopped or hurt. It doesn’t need us, it never needed us. But we all belong to it. She said it was called the One, that everything belongs to it. The atoms in a chair leg, all whistling about. They’re Events as well. Sometimes one explodes, and that’s a Nova. She said to read the Neo-Platonists, they knew a bit about it. I wondered where she’d had time for stuff like that. I thought Sixth Form College was nothing but skiving and Business English.
Doesn’t make sense? That isn’t important. Not really. Because it makes sense to me. Just in flashes. When a pendulum swings, there’s shadows. Like those trick titles you see now on the Box. Some are in the future, some are in the past.
It’s the bar clock I can hear. The big one in the saloon. Funny how you can hear it right up here. Sort of trick of the building.
Came from Pete’s Dad’s place, that clock did. His pride and joy. Parliament clocks, they call them. Go back to the days when some silly blighter put a tax on timepieces. Seems Governments weren’t any smarter then. All that happened was they all chucked their clocks out, had one thundering great big thing everybody could see. Worth a packet these days. That bent little sod from the Brewery offered me two hundred cash to knock it off the inventory. He must have been joking.
That’s another funny idea. Worth. Value, price. If you knew the half of what I do—but maybe you will one day. If you get the time.
Looked in on Pete on the way up. She’s asleep. Real sleep, not that halfway, floating stuff you get from pills. Hair spread on the pillow, looks about twenty. As if the years don’t matter. But they don’t, not really. That’s what’s so bloody marvellous. They don’t matter at all.
Asked Kaeti what I should write about. She just grinned though. ‘Anything,’ she said. ‘You, Mum. The pub. It’s all Actions. Anything you like.’ So I’ll start with me.
I wasn’t born in these parts. London, that’s where I hail from. The Smoke. Only they shifted me out. Five or six I was, and the Blitz just really starting to warm up.
Funny how clear some of it still is. The sirens going and us trailing out from school, lining up in the yard. Then down the shelters, shoving and pushing, and the whistles going and all us with the gasmasks on our shoulders. We used to sit sometimes and hope there’d be a raid. Like holidays they were. Half days off, courtesy of old Adolf. We didn’t know of course. Not really. Bombs don’t mean anything to kids. They’re just something that happens on the films.
I remember the shelters too. Lines of slatted seats, and the voices everywhere. Puddles on the floor and that stink there always was of wet cement. And the lamps in their wellglasses, lines and lines of little yellow bulbs. Funny, thinking back. The school was a damned sight better built than those bloody shelters, we’d have been better off staying where we were.
That’s what my old man reckoned. We’d got an Anderson out the back, they all had. Only we only ever used ours the once. After that if there was a raid on he’d sit downstairs with his mates and just play cards. You’d hear the rumble of voices and the laughing. Sounded louder than the bombs sometimes. They’d always get me up though, make me dress. I’d got a siren suit made out of bright blue blankets, just like old Churchill. They’d get me into it and zip the front, then Jerry could do what he liked. That was all we bothered.
I was only ever really scared once. And that wasn’t at anything that could hurt. Typical. Mam put the bedroom light out one night and opened the curtains and took me to the window. ‘Look, Bill,’ she said, ‘we’ll be all right now. It’s the serchlie!’ I didn’t know what she meant, not to start with. Then I saw these two beams of misty blue, reaching up there miles across the housetops, and for some reason, God knows why, they looked liked horns on the head of a bloody great ghost. Then they swung and dipped and I knew the serchlie was nosing about looking for me and started yelling the place down. Poor old Mam, she never did understand it. They tied the labels on our coats next morning and shipped us out. Evacuation, they called it. Sis kept bawling but I was just glad I was getting out, where the serchlie couldn’t get me. Ghosts were a lot worse than bombs. That’s where we all went wrong of course, years and years ago. Teaching kids a load of muck like that.
That’s how I got to Blackwell the first time. Blackwell, Hants. Just over the border, on the edge of the big common. Queer little place it is. Not much to it, not even a church. Just little red brick cottages scattered about and a couple of pubs, and the lane up to the farm. There’s one big house, at the other end of the village. That’s where we all stayed. The Stantons have got it now, had it for years, but in those days it was owned by an old biddy called Devenish. Left over from the Raj, she was. Indian stuff all stood about, and a big old overgrown garden that even had canebrakes in it. You could play lions and tigers through there a treat. Or Spitfires and Messerschmitts. We did too, me and Sis and about a dozen more. Right little perishers, we were. Mrs. Devenish never bothered though, just sat in the middle of it all and mended socks and clipped ears when she had to. I reckon that was her War Effort. Auntie we called her, and we all got on fine. Knew when to stop of course. Not like these days.
It was a bit queer to start with, green fields all over and the birds every morning. Most of us never took to it. I know Sis didn’t, she was off back to London first chance she got. It suited me though somehow. They’d got ack-ack guns on the common then, and a searchlight unit. I knew what they were by then of course. Used to hang round every chance I got, scrounge off the soldiers. Got to be a sort of company mascot in the end. Even had my picture in the paper once, sitting at one of the guns complete with oversize tin hat. Plus some bloody drivel about the next generation, and Building for the Future. Still got it somewhere.
Nobody ever bombed Blackwell though; and after a while the unit was moved out. It was real quiet after that.
I could have gone back I suppose. A lot of them did. I probably would have if I’d had the chance. But Dad always said no, not till they blew the whistle. Reckoned Jerry had still got some stuff left up his sleeve. As it turned out, he was right. V2 it was, took the whole row out. The War finished a few weeks later. Made it seem more of a waste than ever.
I lived with Auntie May and her lot till I finished school. I got myself a garage apprenticeship then. Used to hang round Douggie. Caswell’s old place in the village, I’d got used to the smell of motor oil. After that it was national service of course. For some reason they decided I wasn’t quite Al so it was the Pay Corps and like it. Two years counting piastres, watching camels float down the Sweetwater bloody Canal. When I got back to London there was nothing to stay for any more. What mates I’d had had all drifted off; Sis had married and moved out, damn near to Epping, and the Council had really got their teeth into our neighbourhood. I reckon they finished Jerry’s job for him. All the stuff he hadn’t had a go at, they did. My old man would have turned in his grave. If he’d ever had one. Auntie was slated for a highrise block and there wouldn’t have been room for me even if I’d wanted to go. That’s how I turned up again one bright day in Blackwell. I’ve been here ever since.
Always liked the common. Not that there’s all that much to see. Just flat ground, undulating a bit, the tussocky grass, big stands of gorse and bramble. Swarms with adders in the summer, the cottage hospital always used to keep the serum. Lazy little beggers, bite rather than move, the kids would step straight on ’em. Autumn’s the time to see it though. Autumn, and early winter. It sort of comes into its own then. The pub fronts it square-on, you can see the mist lie on it like milk, the humps and bushes sticking up out of it dark. The mist’s nearly always there, hanging low. Till the wind gets up and shreds it. They say it’s to do with the subsoil. Which I suppose is as good a story as the next. Sometimes it comes creeping across the road, big blue tongues that push out sudden, no more than a foot or two off the ground. It was a night like that old Teddy saw the ghost. Tall swirling pillar it was, come squirting straight out the ground. I can remember him saying it. ‘Swirling,’ he kept on saying. ‘Swirling, it was.’ Took half a bottle of Scotch to set him to rights. But Teddy was an old trooper, sarn’t-major farrier in the Bengal Lancers. Never needed much in the way of excuses at the best of times.
I first met Pete on the common. I used to walk there whenever I had the time. Which wasn’t all that often. I was working for Douggie Caswell then, been with him getting on four years. He was at the garage all hours himself so if an urgent job came in, which they often did, I never bothered much about staying on as well. Not much else to do in Blackwell anyway. But I used to stroll that way when I could. You could still see the pads where they stood the anti-aircraft guns, and close by were some concrete bunkers they’d never got round to knocking down. Even some rusty coils of wire, with the weeds all growing through them. I’d sit and smoke a fag and think about the old times. Mam and Dad, what they’d have made of it all. I suppose I’d turned into a bit of a loner. I was like it in the mob, they always reckoned I was a funny sort of blighter. Even for a Londoner.
Pete was a bit the same. Though to start with I never realized why. She’s got this scar on her face. Down one cheek, and across her chin. Pulls her lip up one side, into a little pucker. Pony did it, when she was a nipper. Must have nearly split her in half, poor little devil. They’d make a better job of it now. But those days plastic surgery was something not even money could buy. Took us a War to really find out about that.
Funny, but that first time I never even noticed it. Maybe because she had a knack of keeping her face half turned away. She was very good at it too, never made it obvious. All I saw was this tall blonde piece in flat slippers and a belted mac, mooching along on her own. Her collar was turned up against the drizzle, her hands were rammed in her pockets. But do you know, I fancied what I saw. When I finally did see the mark—well, it was just a part of her, wasn’t it? It didn’t worry me one little bit, not ever. I sometimes think I thought more of her because of it. But perhaps I’m funny that way.
Her Dad kept a ramshackle old pub the other side of Camberley. The Hoops, it was called. Been knocked down for years now, to make way for a bypass. Her mum was dead and there weren’t any other kids, so Sunday afternoons were about the only free time she had. That’s when we used to meet, up on the common. Meet, and just walk. Sometimes we’d talk, sometimes we wouldn’t bother. I expect you’ll think that’s a funny sort of courtship. But then I never looked on it as courting. I don’t think she did either. I’d tell her about Cairo and the Army, and being in London in the War, and she’d come out with bits about herself. Her grandparents were Norwegian, which was where she got her figure and her looks. Proud of it too, in a funny sort of way. She still spelled her name the same, ‘Petersen’ with an ’e’. She hadn’t got much of a life though. Just the pub really. Her Dad enjoyed the gout, he’d got pills for it but the awkward old blighter wouldn’t take ’em. They didn’t do much trade, not enough to run to bar help, so the nights he couldn’t hobble she’d got the place to run on her own. That’s why I took to dropping in, lateish sometimes, to do a bit of cellar work for them. Rack the barrels for tapping, get the empties into the yard. I suppose they got to rely on me. But we didn’t think too much about that either.
It was over a year before I popped the question. Even then I don’t think I would have only I’d had just one or two over the odds. Christmas it was, they’d asked me over to stay, help out with the bars because for once they were going to be busy. Anyway when we finally got the doors shut and the old man had tottered off for some kip we just flopped out, both of us, either side the fire. Turkey was on, there wasn’t anything else to do. We watched the windows blueing for a while then she fetched another drink and we got to talking. She was really tired. I knew because she was rubbing the scar, a thing she never did. Sliding her fingers along it, touching at her lip.
I don’t know why but I felt a sense of urgency. As if a moment was coming—an Event—that would never come again. Not ever, not in a thousand million years. I’d never imagined myself marrying anybody, let alone asking. I’d thought about it odd times, I suppose everybody does, but the image had just refused to form. But now I somehow knew it wouldn’t wait. Every second was precious and they were rushing past faster and faster, all the while I sat. So I just came out with it. No time even to be scared.
I’ll never forget the look on her face. ‘What?’ she said. ‘What?’ As if she hadn’t heard right. So I said it again. Told her some other things as well, that had been waiting a very long time. They all came out in a rush. I wasn’t any bloody capture, not for anybody. Let alone a girl like her. It was a cheek even to think about it, and I told her that as well.
She still looked sort of dazed. ‘Me?’ she said. ‘Me?’ I found out then what that silly little mark on her face had come to mean to her over the years. Because she grabbed my hand, pressed my fingers on it. ‘You’d be marrying this as well,’ she said. ‘This. Wake up every morning, have to look at it.’
I knew I’d had too much then because I just got blazing mad. Not at her though, for her. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and aren’t I the lucky one? Think of all the fun I’m going to have, trying to kiss it better.’
She starting laughing at that. Then she was crying, then we were both laughing again. ‘Why not?’ she said. ‘Why bloody not?’ Then I think we both went a bit mad. All that lot bottled up, then the cork came out the bubbly. Afterwards she said, ‘I love you, Bill, I love you,’ and I said, ‘I love you.’ Silly bloody words, aren’t they? But words are all we’ve got. We lay and said them and said them and the radio was playing in the lounge because we hadn’t turned it off, and there’s a carol that still stands my back hairs straight on end. I was the King of Bethlehem that night, because I’d just been born; and she was the Queen.
We made part of the top floor of the Hoops into a flat. It wasn’t ideal but there really wasn’t anything else to do. Kaeti was born just over a year later. That wasn’t a good time either. Pete got her second scar. Afterwards, she could never have any more.
They say it never rains but what it pours. A few weeks later Douggie called me into his rabbit hutch of an office. I’d been expecting it. I’d lost a lot of hours, the work was piling up, we were going to have to sort something out. It wasn’t that though. He beat about the bush for a while, which wasn’t like him, then he came out with it. He hadn’t been feeling too good for a year or more, he’d been thinking it was time to call it quits. Now he’d had an offer he couldn’t turn down. So he was selling up.
He’d started to look his age, I granted that. I’d seen it, so had one or two more. But the first thing in my mind was Pete and the kid. I said, ‘Who to?’
He looked away again. Finally he said, ‘Jacobsons.’ Then he looked back. He said, ‘I’m sorry about it Bill, I know just how you feel. I feel the same. But that’s the way it’s got to be.’
A byword in the district, they were. Right crowd of Flash Harrys. Made it pay though, got a big place out on the A30, couple more down Frimley way. Believed in fast turnover. Small profits, quick returns. Or so the saying goes. The fast turnover included staff. I couldn’t imagine what they wanted our dump for. I found out fast enough though. First thing in was the time clock. Second was a smartyboots little Manager. His main job was corner-cutting. If there was a quick way round anything, that was the way you took. Not sawdust in the axles, rubbish like that; they were far too smart. But some of the bits were bloody near as bad. There were four of us by then. Five including the foreman. Which naturally wasn’t me. They extended the old workshop, pushed an ugly great prefab across what used to be the Waterfords’ greenhouses. General consensus was, it spoiled the village. Which in fact it did. There are such things as planning authorities of course; but a bob or two in the right place always did work wonders.
Maybe I should have got out before I did. But jobs in my line weren’t all that thick on the ground. I did prospect a couple, but I couldn’t see myself being any better off. And it had to be local because Pete was tied to the pub. Her old man was worse than ever, in addition to which he’d started hitting the bottle. We’d had to take on a full time girl, and another to cover her days off. The combined wages made a hefty dent in the family income. All in all, we’d got ourselves into a right bloody tangle.
I stood it for a year. Then Douggie rang one night with a proposition. I didn’t fancy it at first. I’d never seen myself as a shopkeeper, I didn’t now. But the way he put it, it made sense. ‘You know the trade’s changing, boy. It’s not repairs any more, it’s just replacements. You don’t do any bloody engineering, one month’s end to the next. Why not face facts?’
He’d got property all over, bought in the days when you could get a nice little cottage for a couple of hundred quid. Nice little shop it was too, just off Camberley High Street. Caswell Autospares. Did well right from the start, I was surprised. Leather covered steering wheels, poncey little car vacs; lot of stuff I wouldn’t have bothered with myself. I always stopped short at Dolly Danglers though.
Funny sometimes when you hit a bit of rough. It seems you cop for the lot. Then you get through it and it all goes smooth and straight and you know it’s going to stay that way, for a little while at least. Though I expect Kaeti would have a smart answer for that as well. Something to do with Perception of Reality.
She was seven when we came up here. Right little tomboy, spitting image of her Mum. Darker colouring, but the same big grey-blue eyes. Her Grandad had been dead five years or more. We brought the big clock out and an old carved box full of family letters, and that was the last I wanted to see of the Hoops. We settled down to build the business up and make ourselves a home. The first real one we’d had.
Pete was over the other thing as well. About never having any more kids. It hit her hard to start with. She never said all that much, but I could tell. I knew she was over it when she stood in front of the mirror one night. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘I think it’s working.’
I couldn’t think what she meant, not to start with. I said, ‘What’s working?’ and she grinned at me. She said, ‘What you told me that first night. It must be mind over matter.’
I’d been going through some of the papers and they’d given me an idea. ‘Pete,’ I said, ‘have you ever been home?’
‘What?’ she said. ‘I am home.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘I didn’t mean that. I meant Norway.’
It didn’t sink in for a minute. Then her eyes started to change. She said, ‘We can’t afford it.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘we can’t. When shall we go?’
She didn’t answer straight off. Just sort of swallowed. Then she said, ‘It’ll have to be a ship. Grandad always said it had to be a ship.’
And so a ship it was. Kaeti and Pete and me, all on a great big ship. And Norway?
It’s funny, but it’s a place where there’s only Now. Because the winter’s coming and it’s dark, it lasts for ever. So you live a marvellous, vivid Now. And there’s the mountains, the huge mountains, and the sea. It’s a place to be in love. On a ship, under the Midnight Sun.
Wind’s dropped a bit. Rain’s easing too. Put the light out just now, stood till my eyes got used to the dark. Nothing to see though. Dim gleam of the lane and the common stretching out, big humps of bushes. Nothing moving at all.
Douggie died in sixty nine. I’d been expecting it but it still came as a shock. After all I’d known him most of my life. I got a bigger shock a few days later though. He’d left us the shop. The lot, lock stock and barrel. I knew there weren’t any relatives, just a sister somewhere down Brighton way; but I still never expected that. About the same time the word went round the Greyhound would be changing hands, old Bill was going to retire. Good old boy he was, ex copper. Had it since just after the War.
Pete grinned when I told her about it. She said, ‘Going to have a go then?’
‘A go,’ I said, ‘what do you mean?’ and she looked at me. ‘The pub,’ she said. ‘You know you want it.’
I think my mouth must have dropped open. I did want it, I wanted it a lot, but till that minute I don’t think I’d faced up to it. I said, ‘Haven’t you seen enough of pubs?’
She started clearing away. ‘We’re not talking about me,’ she said, ‘we’re talking about you.’
‘We’re talking about both of us,’ I said. ‘You wouldn’t want to go back into a pub, not after what you put up with.’
She leaned on the table. ‘Look, Bill Fredericks,’ she said, ‘I’ve never told you what I want, one way or the other. So don’t go putting words in my mouth.’ She looked thoughtful. ‘Matter of fact I wouldn’t mind running a pub,’ she said. ‘Running one. My way. And you could make that place go.’
‘But there’s nothing up there,’ I said. ‘Only the village.’
‘There’s the new estates,’ she said. ‘And that other one they started up Yately way. Come by the other day, there’s people in already.
‘They’re no good,’ I said. ‘Up to here in mortgages. Anyway we couldn’t afford it, the ingoing’s bound to be sky high. It’d mean selling up.’
She looked scornful. ‘Course it wouldn’t,’ she said. ‘Get it off the Bank, you’ve got collateral now. Then put somebody in here. I don’t see how you could lose.’
And that was the first time I realized Pete’s got a far better business head than me.
I didn’t think we stood much of a chance. Heard later they had twenty couples after it. But Pete got herself done up to kill and that was the end of it. Perhaps the Brewery thought they owed her a favour.
I suppose the Greyhound isn’t everybody’s idea of a country pub. Big gaunt red-brick place it is, stands back on its own facing th. . .
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