My Grandfather, like countless grandfathers before him, told many stories. What makes a good story well-told is perhaps the unseen legwork behind the delivery. After all, grandfathers have had plenty of time to hone their skills. They have told that same story countless times to various people receiving equally varied responses. They know when to pause, when to reach out and grab you suddenly in a brief but terrifying grip, and when to add warmth with dewy-eyed reminiscence.
Their stories are as much a part of their legacy as the Toby jugs and tortoiseshell combs. And so it comes as no surprise that my Grandfather had spent his entire lifetime refining his story legacy. Often he would just look up from whatever it was he was doing, fix you with a twinkling eye and say, ‘Did I ever tell you about the time…?’ and then he, with little encouragement, would take you on a short journey situated somewhere between the truth and wistful recollection. What one got was the polished, well-rehearsed delivery of a tale that may have started life as a loosely held together concept.
He was in many ways a very self-deprecating man; he never boasted about his accomplishments during the war and his modesty and humility lent weight to his stories. Often he portrayed himself as the butt on which the joke hinged. Even in old age he had the ability to mock his own fragility and, at times, his foolhardy courage or ‘pluck’. There was never any doubt about how brave he was but, to him, he was only ever treading the boards, doing what anyone else would do in those times, in that situation. On occasion, if he played his part well enough, he got through it and other times, despite his best efforts there were consequences. Of course, that is life but for him and so many others during the war the stakes were far greater.
Toward the end of his life he was living alone in a small cottage, in a small village in North Cornwall. He had mobility problems due, in no small measure, to the shrapnel lodged in his back. To picture what I’m about to tell you, you must first see the terraced cottage, painted white with its grey slate roof leaning sharply into a garden which was small in size but big on colour. With your back to the garden you see the stoic old church with its graveyard and further along the road, the clock tower engraved around the base with the names of fallen sons.
Through the low cottage front door, under the blackened oak lintel that, even as a teenager I would have to duck under, you are greeted by a steep stairway leading up to the only bedroom. Running along the staircase wall is a grab rail to aid my grandfather on the staircase. At the bottom of the stairs stands his Zimmer frame.
To the left of the front door is his stuffy little front room (heated like a furnace) big enough to fit one comfortable chair and a tiny two-seater sofa that sags so much in the middle that getting out is not an option. There is a chunky old television set in one corner and a curious cookie jar shaped like a new York cop sitting on a side table. To the right of the staircase is his rudimentary kitchen with the old cast iron Rayburn in the fireplace, like an antiquated steam engine, kettle always atop, quivering and simmering away. The kitchen table is piled with a multitude of detritus: unopened letters, bills and newspapers in amongst photographs, calendars and keys. Smell the too-hot-to-eat pasty’s cooling by the sash window and taste the bitter tannin of tea left to brew for too long.
The place was, for want of a better word, comfortable but had its difficulties too, not least of all the laborious task of having to drag himself up and down the narrow stairs.
So when, according to Granddad, one night the police woke him from his sleep by banging nosily on the front door, it was a bit of an effort to get dressed and go downstairs.
He starts the story with information he gleaned after the event.
‘You hear about that madman that escaped from Bodmin Hospital?’
Hooked from the start I say, ’Erm… no Granddad, what about him?’
‘Well it was last week, he took off during the night, he apparently scaled the wall like a cat and disappeared into the night. The authorities reckoned he would show up here, in this village sooner or later. They said he was dangerous but that he had family here, so he might stop off to seek refuge and sustenance.’
I pictured an Abel Magwitch type convict, slipping into the village at night and then sitting opposite his grandmother sipping tea and eating bread and jam.
‘Of course I didn’t know anything about that: I go to bed early these days. Anyhow first I know is that someone is banging on my door, shouting for me to open it! I don’t know how long they were banging on the door, I didn’t have my hearing aid in, see? Anyway never mind that, I heard it in the end. Thought at first it was gunfire! First I have to struggle to get out of bed and then getting down the stairs isn’t easy either. I get down eventually but all the while they are shouting and hollering and banging on the door.
“Who is it?” I say through the door, standing there in my dressing gown leaning on my Zimmer frame.
“Police open up!” they shout back.
“How do I know you are the police?” I said, because they could be anyone. I’d seen it on ‘Crime Watch’, these rouges going around impersonating people of authority and taking advantage of elderly folks. It’s not right is it? Some of these people can be very persuasive.’
He pauses for a moment and then says.
‘I get six bottle of wine from the Times wine club every month, you know? I don’t even drink wine. Karen phoned me up and we started chatting about one thing and another and before you know it I’ve agreed to what is, if you like that sort of thing, a very good deal.’
“Sir this is the police and if you don’t open the door we will be forced to knock it down!” hollered the policeman, getting all uppity at me.
Well that got my goose up to be honest with you. They are supposed to give you some form of identity.
So I said, “Sir, if you knock down this door I will fight you.”
Of course that fellow, who, as it turns out was a policeman looking for the runaway madman, didn’t know I was leaning on a Zimmer frame. But, he just mumbled something incoherent and left me in peace.’
I can picture what’s happening on both sides of the door and I know full well that despite his invalidity he would have, if he thought it necessary, put up a fight. The police officer may have decided that one madman was enough for one night.
As a young boy, from the age of six, during the summer holidays I would join my Grandfather on his rounds. My Granddad, at that point, was in the pest control business and travelled around North Cornwall in his beaten up old van visiting local farmers. His army days were long gone, discharged due to injury he’d wound up working with the local council exterminating rats, moles and other pests. For him, I believe, this new career was a far cry from his previous occupation and, with hindsight, I can see that he resented his change in fortune. But, as far as I was concerned, we had the best job in the world. Travelling the narrow winding roads, trundling past miles of hedgerow with occasional glimpses of the sea and listening to his stories, we answered to no one, but met a lot of colourful and often strange people, all of whom harboured a fondness for my grandfather and therefore, by association, me.
The interior of that old van had a particular smell, not repugnant or offensive in any way, not like one might imagine the inside of a rat-catchers van to smell but comfortingly musty like clothes made damp by the rain but with undertones of ambrosial sweetness. Granddad always had a bag of boiled sweets on the cluttered dashboard in amongst the invoices and appointment slips. He’d ‘kicked the habit of smoking’ after nearly forty years and these boiled sweets were all that stood between him and starting up again.
He warned me about the hazards of smoking by way of one of his typical self-deprecating yarns.
‘I was on leave, just before the war started. Of course everyone knew something big was about to happen that’s why we were given leave, to go home and spend time with our loved ones. Before war broke out I’d been working in Buckingham Palace you know? Everyone was a Nazi spy so the army were brought in to do a lot of the work. I was responsible for delivering the King his mail in the morning. I had a problem saying ‘Majesty’, it never came out right, but the King, who had a stutter, felt sorry for me and said after a couple of days, “Just call me George.” Well after that we got on famously.
Anyway, one night I was in the Arscott Arms, I’m not much of a drinker, not like some of the other lads, but I liked to dance, so if there was music I’d go and look for a pretty girl to dance with. Now, as I said I didn’t drink but you should know that I did like a smoke. In fact I’d started on the Woodbines by the time I was your age! Anyway, on this particular evening I’d met a maid, this is before I knew your grandmother of course. I can’t remember her name but I remember that she was handsome and that she could dance really well. We were having a good time, dancing and joking around when all of a sudden this big fellow comes into the pub and squares up to me.
“That’s my girl!” he said.
I looked at the girl and she shock her head and rolled her eyes in a fashion that said to me, “This fellow’s got delusions.” Now I’ve come across deluded men before as it happens, the army is full of them. I might have been deluded myself at times too. It’s like a contagious decease that sweeps through the ranks. There is no reckoning with a delusional man, there is nothing you can say to help them see sense. The only thing you can do is to fight them, if its worth the effort, and I thought this young girl was worth the effort.
So me and this big fellow go outside to fight, that’s just protocol you see. No one in those days would dream of fighting inside the pub: everyone embarking on a fight took it outside, as did we. The rest of the revellers came out too; no-one wanted to miss out on seeing a good scrap. It all started well, Queensbury rules and all that. I landed the first punch right on his jaw and followed with a left hook. ‘This,’ I thought, ‘was going to be easy.’ Not so son, not at all. You see despite the fact that I started off well, this fellow had something I lacked, he had stamina! He had what the sergeant major called, ‘staying power’. Where I started to tire, to run out of puff due to all those Woodbines, this fellow just kept getting up and coming at me like a tank! In the end he beat me black and blue. I watched him leave with his arm around the girl and that was that.’
While listening to this story I had made the fatal mistake of predicting the outcome: Granddad would win the fight along with the girl and everyone would celebrate his victory. So, to realise that he had actually lost came as a bit of a blow. I glanced at him to see whether his expression betrayed any self-pity but all I could see in his face was a sort of wry joy in his own misfortune.
One morning we set off for a farm near Bodmin. Here, on this farm Granddad explained, was where he met the Beast of Bodmin, although it was not known as the Beast of Bodmin then, that came later, thanks to him. He had, the previous year, dropped in on the farmer and his wife to see if they needed anything.
‘A courtesy call was all it was. I thought, as I was passing I’d pop in and see how the rat population was doing over at the Stevens’ place. I pulled up outside the farmhouse and Mr Stevens came out immediately, flapping his hands and looking very concerned, “Charlie thank God you are here, I was just about to call you,” he said.
‘What’s the problem?’ I said getting out of the van, thinking it might be moles again. Of all the rodents, moles is the worst. I have tried all sorts of ways to exterminate them, including small charges of dynamite and yet the buggers just keep on keeping body and soul together. You got to hand it to them really. If there is such a thing as reincarnation then coming back as a mole would be a pretty safe option I reckon. Well if not a mole then a cockroach, cockroaches are pretty tough too you know…not least of all when they are all you have to eat.
Mr. Stevens said, all flustered, “In the end barn Charlie, go and have a look, I don’t know what to do about it really. It’s left us in a bit of a jam to be honest. Mrs. Stevens won’t come out of the house for hell or high water, she’s afraid it will eat her.”
Well I didn’t know what to expect to be honest with you boy, but of all the things a bloody great Puma was not one of them.
I walked over to the end barn, pulled back the door and peered straight into the eyes of a killer. Well I damn near died on the spot. Luckily we were trained in the army to deal with any situation but I think I must have missed the class on dangerous, feral cats. Anyway instinct kicked in pretty quick and I closed that barn door very carefully; it was like trying to put a pin back in a hand grenade, and then I marched over to Mr. Stevens.
‘There’s a bloody Puma in your barn!’ I said.
“I know that but what are you going to do about it Charlie?” he said.
“Well you are pest control and that, by anyone’s standards, is a pest Charlie,” said Mr. Stevens with his hands on his hips, all determined like.
‘Well how did it get in there anyway?’ I asked.
“It just wondered in I guess. Must have been released from a zoo or something. Luckily no one was in there at the time. Mrs. Stevens was shelling peas under the elm and I was repairing the tractor. I got up and walked over to the barn to fetch a number twelve spanner and there it was. I closed the door and bolted it. I was just looking for your phone number when you turned up. Which is a good thing, because you are just the man for the job Charlie.”
‘Well’ I said seeing that Mr. Stevens was adamant, ‘Do you have a shotgun in the house?’
“That’s the spirit Charlie, I’ll go get it for you.”
Mr. Stevens fetched his shotgun and I grabbed a length of rope from the back of the van. I tied the rope to the handle of the barn door and walked backwards for as far as the rope would allow. Stevens handed me the gun. ‘It’s loaded Charlie. I’ll wait inside if that’s alright, Mrs. Stevens is all tied up in knots: you know what women are like.’
Yes I did, I thought, and they are a damned sight more courageous than you.
So old Stevens makes his valiant retreat and I’m left with the job of tackling a Puma. I gathered my nerve, dug my heels into the ground and yanked on the rope. The door flew open and I raised the gun and…nothing, no Puma in sight. I walked tentatively toward the barn with my finger poised over the trigger and…nothing. It was then that I noticed that the doors to the back of the barn were wide open! It was also then that I heard a low growling noise coming from behind me. I turned slowly, shaking now, like a puppy having a poo, and there it was glaring at me. I pulled the trigger, and gave him both barrels, the force of which threw me onto my back. I struggled to my feet holding the gun like a club because old Stevens had not given me any more ammunition. I looked around and the Puma was gone. I don’t know how he got out or where he went from there.
After that there were reports of a wild cat roaming the moor killing farm stock and scaring hikers. Me and old Mr. Stevens just kept mum about it all, in fact we never mention it, and nor should you.’
One of the other stories I wasn’t to mention was the one about the lost watch.
‘You never know who you are telling,’ was Granddad’s reasoning.
Once again, during leave from the army Granddad went home to Cornwall. It was summertime and the weather was warm. He borrowed his father’s motorbike and rode to the beach for a swim.
‘In those days,’ he explained, ‘no one bothered about thieves; we just used to roll up our valuables in our socks and stuff them into our boots. So that’s what I did, got undressed, put my valuables in my boots and went for a swim in the sea. I came back and lay down on the sand for a while to dry off. I fell asleep and when I woke up I had no idea what time it was! I sat up and rummaged around in my socks and boots looking for my watch but couldn’t find it. I never thought for one moment that someone had pinched it. I thought I must have dropped it in the sand. So, I start looking for it but still can’t find it. In a while the lifeguard comes over and asks me if everything is all right.
I explained rather sheepishly to the lifeguard that I’d lost my watch, it was a gift from my parents and I’d be mortified if I couldn’t find it.
The lifeguard, who was an elderly gentleman, all the young fellows were at war by now, began to organise a search party. Before too long just about everyone on the beach was involved in the hunt for your Granddad’s watch. All the children had given up on their various pursuits and joined in the hunt, walking up and down the beach in a line, paying careful attention to the sand beneath their feet. By this time I’d got dressed and of course joined in with the hunt. Feeling overwhelmed at the kindness of strangers I put my hands in my trouser pockets, a sort of gesture of contentment, when my fingers closed around the cold metallic contours of my watch. My goodness, the shame I felt at that moment was immeasurable; it burnt hotter than the mid afternoon sun. I would rather the sands beneath my feet open up and swallow me whole than have to face that crowd of well-meaning holiday-makers and fess up! And so for another hour I allowed the search party to continue looking for a watch that didn’t need to be found. Eventually I thanked everyone, but said it was pointless going on with the search, I feared that the watch was lost forever. There followed a collection, and an amount of money was raised to go towards a new watch. I had no choice but to except the money, I was in too deep by then. I could hardly tell them the truth, not at that point. What I should have done was to drop the watch in the sand during the search and let someone else find it. But, truth is I’d lost it once and didn’t want to lose it again. So, you see, you can never tell that story because you may be telling one of the searchers, and by now they have grown fat off of their own version of events. They would be very vexed if they ever found out the truth.
On arriving at the Stevens’ farm, Mr. Stevens and his wife came out to meet us.
‘Charlie how are you today?’ inquired Stevens in a jovial tone.
‘Very well Mr. Stevens. Hello Mrs. Stevens how’s the hip?’
‘Oh fair to middling,’ said Mrs. Stevens and they all laughed together.
‘Oh and this must be the grandson you told us about, Paul is it?’ said Mrs. Stevens crouching to get a better look at me.
‘That’s him,’ said granddad winking at me.
‘Well if he likes he can have a piece of my homemade apple pie later?’ she said smiling.
‘Well I’m sure we’d all like a piece of pie as soon as we’ve finished. But the boy’s got work to do first,’ said Granddad.
I didn’t take much notice of what was being said. I had one ear on the conversation and both eyes on the end barn where Granddad had confronted that Puma.
‘It’s Hercules again Charlie,’ I heard Mr. Stevens say.
‘He’s back is he?’ Said Granddad gravely.
‘Afraid so Charlie, he’s in the hayloft, bigger than ever.’
‘Well this time I’ll get ‘im, I’ve got the boy for bait.’
‘The boy Charlie?’ cried Mrs. Stevens looking very concerned.
I started to pay a little more attention now. Was Hercules the Puma? I wondered. If so I had mixed feelings about being bait. On the one hand I’d get to see it up close but on the other hand I didn’t want to be ‘that’ close.
‘Who’s Hercules?’ I asked as casually as I could.
‘A bloody great rat,’ said Mr. Stevens.
‘The biggest rat you are ever likely to see my boy. As big as a cat would you say Mr. Stevens?’
‘Oh he’s grown. Hercules is so big and so fierce he swallows whole chickens. Any normal amount of poison won’t kill him. And besides, he’s not tempted by the poisoned bait, he pretty much eats whatever he likes and he likes chickens.
Granddad laughed, ‘He won’t eat you but he will come out of his hiding place when he catches a whiff of you. As soon as that happens I’ll brain him with a spade.’
‘My God Charlie; really?’ asked Mrs. Stevens wringing her hands in her apron.
‘Now, now Mrs. Stevens, no need to worry, Charlie knows what he’s doing, don’t you Charlie? I mean you won’t let him run off this time will you Charlie?’
‘Yes it’s all under control, you both go indoors and we will be with you in no time,’ said Granddad.
‘With a dead rat I hope? said Mr. Stevens.
The plan was simple enough although I did approach it with a degree of trepidation. Granddad chose a hefty spade from the barn and after a few practice swings thought that it would do the job nicely. We climbed the ladder to the hayloft as quietly as we could and stood in the middle. ‘Right,’ whispered Granddad, ‘Take off your sandals and roll up your trousers. Hercules will smell your feet and think that you are a cheese,’ he explained. This, at the age I was, seemed perfectly reasonable.
‘I’ll hide behind this pile of hay and as soon as he’s close enough I’ll jump out and hit him with the spade.’
I did as I was told and stood on the dusty wooden floorboards with ever mounting terror. A long period of quiet within which I thought about that apple pie, my parents, my warm comfortable bed and my brother who was probably having a much better time of it than me right now. Then, as if in a dream the biggest rat I had ever seen, and I’d seen a few, came out of his hiding place. Hercules was a monster; his thick black fur was covered in straw and chicken feathers. His wiry whiskers bristled. His large snout sniffed the air as his beady eyes fixed on me, hungrily. To me he was a savage, almost mythical beast with a black heart and sharp, poisoner’s teeth. To him I was a bloody great chunk of farmhouse cheddar! After a moment in which I couldn’t move but only stare, a moment in which I heard three hearts beating at once, Granddad’s from behind the hay, Hercules’ from across the loft and my own thumping out its warning. Finally my legs found flight and I ran. I scrabbled back down the ladder and fled towards the van. Behind me I heard the spade come down with a mighty thwack followed by a horrendous cry. The scream of the Devil himself pierced the air. I ran all the way to the van and jumped into the driver’s seat and, not knowing how to drive did the one thing I knew how to do, let the handbrake off! The van began to move slowly at first but soon picked up speed as I held onto the steering wheel trying, without success, to direct its course. The old white van rolled down an embankment and came to an abrupt halt when it hit a dry stone wall.
Later, once Mr. Stevens had pulled the van out of the ditch with his tractor, we all gathered around the kitchen table for a slice of that apple pie.
‘You got him Charlie.’
‘We got him, didn’t we?’ Granddad said to me.
‘I’m sorry I ran, he was pretty scary.’
‘No need to apologise, son; you did your bit, but…’ he hesitated, ‘we must not tell your Grandmother about this; she’ll have my guts for garters.’
Everyone it seems has his Achilles heel, and for Granddad it was his wife.
It has been claimed that animal trainer Mary Chipperfield released three pumas into the wild following the closure of her Plymouth zoo in 1978, and that subsequent sightings of the animals gave rise to rumours of the Beast.