A month after that someone else also had in mind the future of the Cluny Steamboat Company, and he did not wish it well.
Sidney Acton, the owner of what was once Globe Taxis and was now the Kingham Prestige Car Service, was in his first-floor office above the garage and control room, when Dewi Pritchard, his book keeper and general manager knocked softly and entered.
Dewi inclined his head. “Good morning, Sidney.”
“Morning, Taffy,” Sidney said, with something that might have been amusement, or contempt, and placing the teacup down on its saucer dabbed lightly at his mouth with a paper napkin.
“The monthly returns, Sidney.”
Sidney folded his arms, waiting with resigned impatience as the tall, stooped elderly man, a bald like a monk, laid out the twelve stapled sets of figures, fresh from his Calcumatic, neatly on the desk in two columns of six, one set for each of the drivers.
This was the way Dewi had always done it and this was the way he continued to do it. Sidney had long given up telling him to just stick ’em down there. The old boy had come with the business when Sidney bought it three years before, and he’d kept him on for his local knowledge more than anything else.
Reg Lewis, the previous owner, now retired to a bungalow on the coast, used to go through the returns sheet by sheet, finding more than just profit in them. He had built the business up from a single car, his own, and had driven most of the journeys logged there many times himself, knew the clients, had followed their lives from week to week, until his own success isolated him in the office above the garage.
The only figure Sidney was interested in, as Dewi left as quietly as he had entered, was the combined total at the bottom of a single sheet with the twelve individual monthly returns on it in columns. As with business so with life, as far as Sidney was concerned: what’s it add up to?
And what it added up to this month caused him, in a sudden spasm of agitation, to snap in half one of the Duchy Original biscuits he insisted on with his morning tea.
He added the columns up, and then did it again, and still came to the same conclusion as Dewi’s Calcumatic.
He scribbled the weekly totals down on a piece of pager, totted them up and arrived at the same monthly result for all twelve sets of figures. He then went through the returns sheet by sheet, running his accountant’s eye down the weekly columns, adding them up and ending with the same totals.
But it wasn’t long before he started to notice what he was looking at - or rather not looking at.
There were scarcely any journeys logged to Shrewsbury and back, the most profitable of the runs, along with his various council contracts. The From and To columns were full for each week on all the sheets, they’d been as busy over the past month as they usually were, since the premises of his only rival in the town had been gutted by fire one night.
But entries for jobs to Shrewsbury were largely missing, the name of the town like a signature on a series of weekly cheques, long, regular runs there and back, with waiting time in between, all adding up to a steady, lucrative monthly total. Until now.
He didn’t bother with the intercom.
He scooped up the single sheet of figures and went straight out of his office and across the landing into the office opposite, where he held it up like evidence, diverted for a brief moment by his secretary Shirley Meddins standing at a filing cabinet in white plastic boots and denim hot pants, before getting back to business.
Dewi beat him to it. “Shrewsbury,” he said ruefully, looking up from the ledger in front of him and nodding, as if he’d just remembered it. “Yes. Yes, I know. I meant to mention that, Sidney. Completely slipped my mind.”
Dewi hadn’t meant to do anything of the sort. Let him find out for himself, that was his attitude. It went with calling him Sid, slightingly, behind his back, and the sabotaging of the biscuit tin each week, substituting a week’s worth of Sidney’s Duchy Originals with a cheaper version, as he had that morning, knowing that Sidney, for all his London airs, couldn’t tell the difference. He’s an upstart, a counter jumper, a puffed up pip-squeak, an Englishman, he’d added, running out of insults, one ear cocked for the sound of Shirley or Sidney coming up the stairs.
This was Dewi having his say, even if it went unheard. Another small act of revenge for Sidney’s patronising attitude to him, such as calling him, and all Welshmen he had dealings with, Taffy instead of his proper name, as if they all looked the same to him.
Dewi had found a new interest, along with old time dancing and indoor bowls, to help fill his lonely hours: Sidney.
In his flat above a laundrette he regularly planned a more permanent revenge on him, while eating Sidney’s Duchy Originals after dinner, relaxing in an armchair in a cardigan and slippers, eyes closed to the background strains of Mantovani on the radiogram, and the latest satisfying end to Sidney.
It had started crudely enough, with an axe, which, one morning in Sidney’s office, had finished off both Sidney and his antique reproduction desk. That had got things out of his system, but it wasn’t really him. He wasn’t a man to make an exhibition of himself. And it lacked entertainment value, being over almost as soon as it had begun. He had learned patience after that, and cunning, taking time and pleasure over the preparations, and ending up for the next one wearing gloves and hiding behind a bunker on the links with a silenced sniper rifle, waiting for Sidney, in his Pringle sweater and fancy spats, to appear and then taking him out with a single bullet, a hole in one.
He had wired up Sidney’s car with a bomb and timer, listening beatifically to the strings of Mantovani swelling to a crescendo as Sidney’s life ticked to an explosive finale. He had cut his brake lines with the hill on Sidney’s way home to his brassy wife in mind, smiling his secret knowledge of the tragic accident waiting for him at the bottom. And had given himself up to grief as always afterwards, weeping crocodile tears at the untimely end of a colleague and young man of promise, while clinging to Shirley at his funereal.
He had recently moved on to murder at its most refined and clandestine, involving various disguises, foreign accents, and the giving of false details for the poison books of different chemists’ shops. He was killing Sidney off slowly this time, by arsenic, savouring in instalments the spiking of his morning tea.
“You know, Sidney,” he said now, with a small conscientious frown, and as if it had just occurred to him, “come to think of it, there was a piece in the News a short while back about an old boat, a paddle steamer, that’s apparently been refitted and put back on the river again at Batch Magna, a village about six miles from here. It said in the paper that they were doing day trips up to Shrewsbury and back. And I wonder now, you know, I wonder if that’s got something to do with it.”
He gazed expectantly at Sidney, as if waiting to be told what he should think about it. While knowing that not only had it got something to do with it - it had everything to do with it.
He knew that because he’d recently partnered one of the regular Shrewsbury fares at the old time dancing in the community centre, one of the ladies from the leafy part of town. And she’d come straight out with it as he’d twirled her round in a foxtrot, said that she and her friends were now taking the paddle steamer each week for their hair dressing appointments, and for shopping and lunch, and what’s more they intended to keep on doing so. It was all such fun.
“I bet it’s got something to bloody well do with it!” Sidney snarled, glaring at him.
“Oh, it’s great, that is, that boat!” Shirley put in, wiggling her way back to her desk. “It’s like being at the seaside, or something,” she shared with them chattily. “It’s a scream, honestly! Me and my friend Fay have been on it twice now. It’s ever so popular. And it’s dead easy to get there from here, Batch Magna, just hop on a bus. There’s one that gets you there just before the sailing time ...”
Her voice trailed off as she realised she’d just named a second rival of the Kingham Prestige Car Service.
“It won’t last, I’m sure, Mister A,” she said, smiling at him in a sympathetic, maternal sort of way. “It’s just a bit of a novelty, like, that’s all. It won’t last.”
“A passing fad, Sidney,” Dewi echoed reassuringly.
“You’ll see,” he added, after Sidney had closed the door sharply behind him, a comment on them both, and buried a smile in his accounts ledger.
A short while later, when Dewi came in to collect the monthly returns for the files, Sidney was standing at his office window.
Dewi couldn’t see his expression, but he doubted it was a happy one. He was certainly preoccupied. He had neither heard him knock nor turned round when he came in.
Dewi closed the door after him as quietly as he could, out of consideration.
Sidney was not only preoccupied he was also unsettled, and with more than thoughts of the month’s loss of profit. He was feeling a draught from somewhere else, and had no idea from where.
He had built walls around himself since leaving London, and now felt obscurely that they had been breached. He had never felt altogether secure, altogether at home in the persona of Sidney Acton, and the new life he had made for himself here. And now, in a way he didn’t begin to understand, felt even less so.
He had come a long way since leaving London, and had to remind himself of that, of who he now was, staring down at the yard below, at a taxi pulling into it, and a mechanic and one of the drivers talking.
Those people, he told himself, worked for him.
And while Dewi was chatting away to Shirley in what she considered to be an unusually animated fashion, Sidney was back behind his desk, the large reproduction antique he had bought when first arriving, with a leather-upholstered Captain’s chair, made for command.
He had started out then as he meant to go on, and he wasn’t going to let anyone get in his way now.
He had wobbled briefly, standing at the window. But that was the old Sidney, the way he had been, and now the new one was back behind his reproduction antique desk, in control again.
He picked up the phone and dialled straight through to Councillor Probert’s office at the
He was crossing the busy lunchtime saloon bar in Kingham’s County Hotel to meet Councillor Packer, when someone called out a name from one of the tables.
He stopped abruptly, without turning round, and if half expecting it. Before remembering, before telling himself again, that that was no longer who he was.
© Copyright 2017 Peter Maughan. All rights reserved.
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