His Day's Work
'Stand up!' The copper jabbed me in the side with his truncheon and I got to my feet. He could have laid off my ribs. They were quite sore enough already, thank you, from his previous attentions.
'Christopher Johns.' The beak must have been born with that face. It was pompous, self-righteous and very ugly. 'I have, I am sure, the complete support of my colleagues on the Bench,' and she looked at the other two pompous, ugly and self-righteous characters sitting on either side of her, 'when I say that you are one of the most unpleasant young men it has ever been my misfortune to see before me in this Court. On the basis of the long list of thefts which you have committed you seem to think that you have carte blanche to help yourself to other people's property as and when you feel like it. You do not appear to realise how much distress you have caused to decent hard-working citizens by your selfish actions. Do you, boy?'
'Y-Yes - I mean no, ma'am,' I stammered.
'No, indeed. You do not seem to appreciate that honest money is made, and honest wealth created, by hard work, done by honest hard-working people. Don't you remember the War? Don't you think you owe a debt of gratitude to the men who died in the fields of Frankland and on the ramparts of Geneva so that you could live in peace?' All right, all right. I was getting the message. I was a thief and a layabout. Ungrateful too. Couldn't she just get on with sending me down and give the moral lectures a rest?
'Have you ever done a proper day's work in your life? Speak up, boy!'
'Yes - I mean no, ma'am,' I said again. It seemed like the right answer.
'No, I do not think that you have. In the old days I would have had absolutely no hesitation in handing down a custodial sentence of between twelve and eighteen months imprisonment for the series of stupid petty thefts to which you have so wisely pleaded guilty before this Court. However, times have changed, and my colleagues on the Bench and I agree that in this particular case, and taking your domestic circumstances and the intervention of your teachers into account, a different sentence may be more appropriate. Stand up straight, boy!'
I thought I already was standing up straight. The magistrate's daemon's glinty little eye fixed itself on me.
'Christopher Johns, you have taken a great deal from Society. Now it is Society's right, and my duty, to claim due restitution from you. You tell me that you have never done a day's work in your life. This will change. I sentence you to a term of two hundred and fifty hours' Social Duty. You will report to the District Probation Office tomorrow morning at eight o'clock for registration and assignment. This will be hard, dirty, unpleasant work, Master Johns. If at any time, even if you should have only half an hour of your time left to serve, you decide that you would rather not do this work, you will find yourself standing here before me again and you may be sure that I will hand down a very heavy custodial sentence.
'Now get out of my sight!' We got, Jemima and me. Oh yes, sorry, meet Jemima. You're quite right, hamster-daemons are unusual. Yes, her cheeks are meant to look puffed-out like that.
Flora and Kallikrates, that's my big sister and her daemon, met us in the car park outside the Magistrate's Court. 'I suppose you think you're clever, getting off easy like that,' she said.
'It's got to be better than getting sent down. I think the old bat fancied me.'
'No, really. I've heard about this Social Duty. It's all a big fiddle the beaks set up. They give you Social Duty and you have to go round and clean their houses and weed their flowerbeds for them. They get lots of free slave labour. 'Spect she wants to see my hunky body stripped to the waist in her back garden. She looks like she'd like a bit of rough!'
'If you don't shut up right now, Chris, I'm going to throttle you. If our Mum was alive now-'
'She'd be turning in her grave!' No, I don't know why I say things like that. Flora smacked the back of my head the way she always has ever since I was a little kid.
'And you can stop looking at those cars, too!' Shame. There was some nice stuff in the Magistrates' car park. Royces, Morgans, Wolseleys. And a Bugatti! 'Course we couldn't afford nice motors like them. We couldn't afford any sort of motor. That's why I had to borrow them sometimes.
We took the autobus back to the flats. There was only Flora and me living there now, of course. I'm sure you know what I mean. The lift wasn't broken, just for a change, but we took the stairs anyway, for safety's sake. We're only on the third floor - it's no hardship. Flora opened the door, I made myself a salami sandwich in the kitchen and shot into my room. I hadn't thought I'd be seeing it again for a few months so I hadn't bothered sorting it out. Neither had Flora, lazy cow. I tuned the wireless into Radio Luxembourg, grabbed an old Watchmen comic and burrowed down into my bed. To be honest, I was knackered. I hadn't slept too well the night before, for some reason.
Later on, Flora's boyfriend Brian - she'd met him at work - showed up and they had this big row. It looked like Brian had been counting on me being off the premises for the next few months and he'd been thinking of moving in with my big sis. Tough luck, Brian. Especially as Flora wasn't too chuffed with the idea of him taking advantage of my misfortune, if you see what I mean. After half-an-hour's shouting he slammed the front door behind him and stomped off down the stairs. I heard the crash as he kicked the lift doors in, so I knew we'd all be walking up and down the stairs for the next few months until the lift was fixed again, and that I'd get the blame for it. I crept into the lounge where Flora was lying sniffling on the sofa and gave her a brotherly hug to say thank you. We watched Whose Daemon? on the AV for a while - I could never guess which daemon belonged to which person - and then she packed me off to bed. I had an early start the next morning.
- 0 -
The District Probation Office was a dreary municipal building, all hard benches, green paint, and smell of cat's piss. At least, I suppose it was cats. It could have been rats, for all I knew. Me and all the other Young Offenders had to stand in a straight line, pretending to be soldiers, while this uniformed sadist with his bloody great Rottweiler-daemon at his side strutted up and down in front of us, telling us what a load of rubbish we were and how he was going to lick us all into shape, so help him God if he didn't. Didn't he know the War was over? I thought, but decided it would be better if I kept my trap shut. He went on. There were ten of us wastes of space and more rubbish to pick up on the streets of Cassiobury than we'd ever seen in our useless pathetic little lives.
I'd done the sums; which was more that some of the poor sods that were lined up with me could manage, I could tell. Two hundred and fifty hours, at seven and a half hours a day, was thirty-three days, two and one half hours. And the beak had told me what would happen if I missed that last half hour. I'd be back at square one, banged up with the happy smiling pederasts in St Albans Gaol, so you could say I was pretty much motivated to make a success of paying my debt to Society. Even so, it was hard going. The work was menial and disgusting. I suppose you might say that once you've picked up one dog-turd you've picked up all of them. It didn't get any more horrible as you went along, it's just that there was lots of the same sort of horrible every day. All thirty-three and a third of them.
I had to perform this act of public reparation every Saturday, which was daft if you think about it. There has to be more litter dropped on the streets on Saturdays, especially Saturday nights, than any other day of the week, so why not do the cleaning up on Sunday? You must see this, so why didn't they? It was no good pointing it out to Field Marshal de Sade, of course. There must be something about those military caps that prevents the brain underneath, assuming there is one of course, from working properly. So we had to march up and down the streets of Cassiobury in full view of our friends and neighbours, wearing our special Menace To Society bright yellow overalls and carrying our brooms at what the Regimental Sergeant Major called the "high port", which meant over our shoulders like they were rifles. We made a fine example for all the God-fearing law-abiding citizens to point out to their kids. A terrible warning, we were.
- 0 -
It must have been the fairly obvious fact that I had more than one brain cell to rub together that made the King Of Pain single me out one Saturday morning three or four weeks into my sentence. We were all lined up on parade as usual, before setting out for the day's ritual humiliation. 'You, Johns, one step forward!' he bellowed. I wondered what was up. Had a last-minute reprieve come though? Was I free to go, tripping gaily through the leaves and flowers of Cassiobury Park, singing a happy song? Like hell I was.
'Johns, can you read?' Yes, sir.
'Which is more than the rest of this sorry crew can say. Next man I hear muttering is on a charge!' he yelled at the shuffling reprobates behind me. 'Teacher's effing pet! We'll effing get you!' was all I heard.
'Well, Johns, as you are the Balliol Scholar among us, you can take this slip of paper, read the address on it, find your way to that address and report for duty to the gentleman you will find there. Is that clear?' Yes, sir, it was perfectly clear.
'Then move!' Quietly would have done equally as well, but I moved just the same.
- 0 -
The address belonged to a cottage by the canal. It was on the edge of the Cassio Estate, right next to a lock. In fact it might have been the lockkeeper's cottage once, back in the old days when there were lockkeepers on the canals. Now that there's so little commercial traffic on the waterways not enough money comes in to pay for lockkeepers. But I'm getting ahead of myself. It was a pretty place, I have to say, with red-brick walls and mullioned windows and a slate roof, softened by ivy and bushes growing up next to it. It wasn't exactly neglected, but it had a shabby look to it, as if it had been well looked after once, but had slipped back rather. A bit like me, you might say. There was a white picket fence at the front enclosing a rectangle of lawn, cut in half by the path that led from the gate to the front door. Attached to the door was an unusual iron knocker in the shape of a cat's head. I grabbed hold of it and gave it three sharp raps. Nothing happened, so I gave it three more.
'All right, all right, we is coming!' A voice, an old man's voice, came from somewhere behind the front door.
I stood back and waited and after a minute or so I heard the sound of bolts being pulled back and the door opened about half-way. This little old guy stuck his head round it. 'Who is you? What does you want?' He had a magpie-daemon sitting on his left shoulder.
'Are you Mr Arthur Shire?' I asked him.
'Who wants to know?'
'Me. I'm Chris Johns. The Probation Office sent me. They said I've got to report to you for Social Duty.' I handed him the slip.
'Is you from Social Services? I told them we don't need no Social Services.'
'No. Like I said, I'm from the Probation Office and I've got to report to you for duty. Look what it says on the slip.'
He examined it closely, on both sides. 'I doesn't know about this,' he said, looking up at me. 'We never asked for this.'
'Neither did I. Please, the Office sent me and I've got to do what they say, or they'll put me in St Albans Gaol.'
'Gaol? What would they put you in gaol for? What has you been up to?'
'I nicked stuff, didn't I? I've got to do this Social Duty or they'll send me to prison.'
The old guy opened his door a little further.
'What did you nick?'
'Cars mostly. And a wireless. A couple of pictures. Oh, there might have been a book or two. Maybe a few records. They were for Flora, though.'
'No. Oh wait; there was that bike they caught me riding by the Pond. And a scooter before that.'
'Quite the little Raffles, ain't we? You'd better come in.'
He opened the door all the way and stood back to let me in. I braced myself. I'd been in old people's houses before and they always seemed to smell funny. Sometimes worse than funny, if the dreadful reek coming from some of the oldies' flats in our block was anything to go by.
But it wasn't too bad. The inside of Mr Shire's house was like the outside; not a mess, not an awful squalid tip, just in need of some looking after. I know - it was like this; it was like he lived in the place, but it wasn't really his home, if you see what I mean.
There was a hallway, and off it a front parlour, a sitting room and a kitchen. I guessed that the stairs led up to one, maybe two, bedrooms and a bathroom. Actually, although it was all much darker than it needed to be, and the paint was browner than I'd have chosen for myself, I found myself quite liking the place.
I wasn't so sure about the owner, or tenant, or whatever he was. Mr Shire was small and dark and thin and shrivelled up. He looked like a plant that someone had forgotten to water. Except for his eyes, which were deep blue and intense, glowing in the gloom of the hallway.
'First thing you can do is go in the kitchen and make us both a cup of tea. Bring it into the back room and we'll have a chat.' I did as I was told, putting all the tea things on a tray and carrying them into his little sitting room. I poured the tea and handed him a mug. There were two Windsor chairs facing each other across the fireplace, which, as it was only late August and not really autumn yet, was dark and unlit. He sat in the chair under the window, and I sat in the other one. I could feel the light from outside shining on my face, a revealing kind of light, I thought. Mr Shire's face was silhouetted against the window. I couldn't see his expression at all.
'You haven't introduced yourself,' he said.
'Yes, I have. I'm Chris Johns and I've come from the Probation Office, like it says on the slip.'
'You knows what I mean.'
I did. I took Jemima from her place in my pocket. She looked up at Mr Shire with her usual witless stare.
'This is Jemima.'
'Pleased to meet you, Jemima. This is Sarastus, but everyone calls her Sal.' We said hello to Mr Shire's magpie-daemon. I put Jemima back in my pocket.
'You're a thief, you says.' Why did he talk in that strange mixed-up way?
'Yes. That's why I'm here.'
'Why does you steal things?'
'Cause I want them. 'Cause they're nice things, and I like nice things. 'Specially cars.'
'What does your Mum and Dad think of you pinching things?'
'They don't think anything at all. They're dead.' Usually this is a real conversation-stopper, but it didn't put him off in the slightest.
'Is you from the Orphanage, then?'
'No. I live in the flats with my sister.'
'Is she really your sister?'
'Far as I know, yes. What are you getting at?'
'Nothing. Has enough to eat, does you? Still at school?'
Yes to both. I told him about school.
'So. You isn't starving, and you is going to the Merchant Venturers Grammar School, which we happens to know is not where they sends the dimwits. Does you and your sister get on all right?'
'Suppose so - 'cept for her horrible boyfriend.' Brian had moved in. I tended to keep to my room.
Mr Shire shook his head. 'I doesn't know what to say to you, Chris Johns. When I was a kid…' His voice trailed away into silence and he stared at his feet for a minute or two. 'When I was a kid,' he looked up again, 'we had to do awful things just to stay alive.' Oh no. Bad Old Days lecture coming up.
'All right, Chris Johns. You're here to work, so that's what you can do. First thing is you can go shopping for us.' He reeled off a long list of groceries and stuff. 'Get the dry goods from Caters' Supermarket. All the fresh stuff from the market stalls. I'm not a rich man, so don't pay over the odds for anything.' He handed me a ten-pound note.
'I used to be a thief, too. I knows all the tricks. Bring us back the right money. We'll know if you tries to cheat us.'
'Yes, Mr Shire. One thing. Can I change out of these things?' I was still wearing the Yellow Overalls Of Shame. 'They might not let me in the shops dressed like this.'
'We can't say. Now go!'
So I went. I ditched the Yellow Peril in the back garden and took his list round the shops, just as he asked. It's a funny thing - I didn't for a moment think of short-changing him. It wouldn't have been fair. I got back not long after lunchtime with five oil-paper bags full of shopping. It was quite a weight, I can tell you.
I unloaded the stuff on the kitchen table and put it all away where he told me. His kitchen was really well organised; everything had its own place. Then he thought of some things he'd forgotten, so he sent me out again. This time it started to rain just as I set off. It was a mile and a half from his cottage to the High Street and another mile and a half the other way and I was absolutely soaked by the time I got back. I wished I'd kept on wearing the overalls after all.
'Here's your bloody shopping. Want anything else?' I slammed the bag down on the table.
'We'll see. It depends on whether you has damaged anything.'
I sat down and glared at the old fool.
'Chris, Chris. Calm down. It's not worth it. Help me put the things away and then we'll go next door.' I took a deep breath.
He'd made some sandwiches while I was out, and lit the sitting room fire. I took off my wet things and wrapped myself in a blanket while they dried on a clothes-horse next to the hearth. Egg and cheese wasn't my favourite, but I'd have eaten anything, I was so hungry. He made a good cup of tea, though.
While I was munching my sandwiches and drinking my tea, Mr Shire sat in the chair opposite and looked at me intently. If I hadn't been so busy eating, it would have bothered me. When I finished, there was a long silence.
'You and Jemima; you don't talk much, do you?'
'What do you mean?'
'I mean you don't talk to each other.'
I was outraged. How dare he - how dare anyone - speak to me that way! It was private. Everybody knows that. What goes on between a daemon and her human is personal. It's nobody else's business.
'You bastard! Nobody talks to me like that! I've a bloody good mind to fill your effing ugly face in for you!' I stood up. 'Give me back my clothes. I'm off! I don't care what they do to me. You bloody bastard!'
Mr Shire raised his hand. 'Sit down, Chris.' And, Holy Spirit help me, I did.
'How can you ever get to know yourself properly, or find out who you really are, if you never talks to your daemon?'
'We do. We do talk. You don't know what you're on about!'
'You keeps her in your pocket all the time. Is you hiding her? Is you ashamed of her, Chris?'
'Eff off. Why don't you just bloody eff off?' I was starting to cry, I was so angry.
'Look at us.'
I don't think I could have helped but do as he said.
'Show Jemima to us.'
I did as I was told. I held her in my cupped hands where she sat, covering her silly face with her silly paws.
'She's beautiful, Chris. Why can't you see that?' He leaned forward and held out his gnarly right hand. I couldn't believe it. What was he up to? Was he trying to seduce me, the old goat? I might just as well have gone to St Albans Gaol and made friends with the merry nonces after all. Jemima gave me an unreadable look and leapt across the gap to Mr Shire's waiting hand. He put his other hand over her, enclosing her completely.
- 0 -
I can't properly describe what happened then. I know that a feeling of great peace settled over me. I know that Mr Shire's eyes were shining a more intense blue than I had yet seen and that they were as profound as a midnight sky in winter. I know that a shining aura appeared around his hands, made up of millions of fast-moving flecks of gold, which gently lit the small back room in which we sat. I don't know how long this moment lasted; only that when he lifted his left hand, revealing a sleeping Jemima curled up in the other, the sun was going down, colouring the trees behind the cottage a dusky red.
- 0 -
We spoke no more that day, except for a murmured goodbye. I put on my things, which were dry now, waved to Mr Shire as he stood by his front door, and returned to the Probation Office with the yellow overalls, only to find that it had been shut for hours. So I went back to the flats, and home, and Flora and Brian, and homework, and wondered what would happen at the Probation Office next Saturday.
- 0 -
What happened at the Probation Office next Saturday was that Sergeant Major Slave Driver told me that I was permanently transferred to Mr Shire for the remainder of my sentence. 'And don't think that's an easy option, you nasty little piece of ordure!' he barked in my left ear. 'I'll be getting full reports on your progress!' I saluted him smartly, which puzzled the poor man a great deal.
Mr Shire had plenty for me to do. No less than a complete renovation of the cottage seemed to be the objective, but we buckled down to it cheerfully enough. He never talked much, and we never mentioned again what had happened with me and him and Jemima.
As the weeks went by and Saturday followed Saturday I found myself falling into the routine and actually, though I wouldn't have admitted it to begin with, beginning to enjoy the work. It had been hard, very hard, at the start. Mr Shire would watch over me while I was cleaning, or painting, or whatever it was that he had found for me to do. If my work didn't come up to scratch, he'd tell me, kindly but firmly. 'Look Chris, it's like this,' he'd say. 'What's the use of doing a job badly? You'll only have to come back and do it again. Then it'll have taken twice as long as if you'd done it right in the first place.' I could see his point. Mostly.
And it was satisfying to see the way that our efforts were rewarded by an increasingly noticeable improvement in the appearance of the cottage. It was becoming lighter and airier, especially after I cut down some of the trees that were encroaching on the back of the house. Cleaning the walls really showed up the beautiful stonework around the windows, too. One day I painted the front door bright green and the cat-knocker bright red, just for fun. Sal, watching from her usual vantage point on the garden gate, winked at us.
Mr Shire was also getting into the swing of things and I began to notice that work I hadn't quite been able to finish on one Saturday would be all done and dusted by the next. He repainted the cat-knocker black, for a start.
- 0 -
One evening, as the year was moving into early October, we were sitting in our usual places by the fire in his sitting room after a hard day's scraping and undercoating. He took out a squeeze-box - a melodeon, he called it - from a cupboard next to the fireplace, gave it a few tentative squeaks and squawks and smiled at me. 'In my navigating days I used to play this thing a lot. Let's see if we can't remember some of the old tunes. Little Georgie Brooks taught me this one.'
And he sang the song I've copied down below, in a quavery voice that got steadier and stronger as he went along. I've written it down here as we remember it, 'cause if I didn't it might get lost or forgotten, and that would be a shame:
AND HIS DAY'S WORK WAS DONE
As Performed In The Most Select Palais De Varieties In The Capital Cities Of Europe, New Denmark And The Eastern Realms
lie abed and think what an awful thing is work.
I know a lot who've started it and finished with a jerk.
There's Beery Bob, he got a job to drive a motor car.
Said 'Blow the police, I'll let 'em cease, I know what motors are.'
One hundred miles an hour he went and quite enjoyed the fun,
'Til a brewer's dray got in his way and his day's work was done!
shooting competition was the end of Jimmy Duff.
He got a job as marker for the first time in his puff.
He didn't understand the work for when he heard the shot,
He thought it must be time for him to go and mark the spot.
He stood in front of a target for to see which man had won,
And copped a shot on a tender spot and his day's work was done!
To be a
strongman was the fad of Jerry Macintyre,
And just for practice now and then he'd let himself on hire.
He went to do a moving job, some heavy things to shift.
He thought he'd let the others see how much weight he could lift.
With a grand piano on his back upstairs he tried to run,
Trod on a stair that wasn't there and his day's work was done!
a man who got a job with a menagerie,
T'was just to feed the animals, as easy as can be.
He didn't know their appetite, that was the funny part,
'Til when the feeding time came round he had to make a start.
He went into the lion's den and offered it a bun,
The lion smiled and then got wild and his day's work was done!
Jemima and me, we clapped and cheered and demanded an encore and he sang it again, and then he sang some other old songs, like The Watercress Girl and The Weaver And The Factory Maid and Any Old Iron and lots more I can't remember now.
Other evenings, when our work was finished for the day, he'd tell me stories about his life on the waterways of Brytain. He'd spent sixty years, he said, man and boy, on the canals before settling on the land. 'Some days we just sits outside our front door and sees the boats safely through the lock. There ain't as many as there was. The railways and the roads carries all the traffic now. Time was when the Grand Junction, that's what this navigation is called, was chocker from dawn to dusk with working boats and gyptians.'
He also dropped the occasional hint that he'd had some involvement with important matters - matters of State, war work, even - in his time. I was beginning to appreciate that there was a lot more to Mr Arthur Shire than just some decrepit old bloke mouldering away beside the canal.
For one thing, I was beginning to see the same sort of aura shining around the people I met that I'd seen around Mr Shire's hands that very first day. His was the strongest and clearest and the one I saw most often. It was a stream of radiant fire that poured down from the sky and wrapped itself lovingly around him. In dark places especially, it gave off enough light to see by. With other people it varied. Flora's was bright and sparkly, Brian's was practically invisible. I soon realised that this light sought some people out. They were the people with the most life to them; the brightest, liveliest ones, although sometimes I was surprised by the people whom it chose to bless. The cleverest Roman scholar in the school had almost no aura at all, while Simmons - the class dunce - was enveloped in a shimmering halo of golden scintillations.
- 0 -
Winter came, and with it an end to gardening and outside work. It grew colder and colder and one day the canal froze over from bank to bank. It was too cold for snow, they said. I was getting worried about Mr Shire, but I knew it was no good my going round to his cottage on any day but Saturday. 'Bugger off!' he'd shout though a bolted front door. 'You've got studying to do. Come back Saturday!'
So when I did call, finding the cottage warm but the fuel stocks low, the first thing I did was get a saw and cut up the trees I'd felled in the autumn for logs. I piled them up against the wall by his back door so he could bring them in easily. Then I made us both mugs of tea. 'Shall I do the usual cleaning stuff today, Mr Shire?' I asked as we sat by the roaring fire in his back room. I should say that, dusting apart, I never went into the front parlour. Neither, I thought, did he. It was a strait-laced sort of room, with all the furniture arranged at right-angles and old pictures on the walls and a real carpet in the middle of the floor.
Mr Shire said yes, carry on, so Jemima and I did. One old man couldn't generate very much dirt in a week and it only took us a couple of hours to get the whole place looking spotless. We were looking forward to redecorating the interior of the cottage when Spring came and we could open the windows to let the paint dry. When we'd finished our cleaning work, we put together some lunch and carried it through to the sitting room on trays.
I'd fried some bacon and eggs for us, and made some toast. Oh, and black pudding and a few mushrooms too, for extra flavour. Mr Shire sent me back to the kitchen for some brown sauce, I remember. We ate in silence, and then he pushed his plate back with a sigh. 'That was good, Chris. Thank you.'
'That's all right, Mr Shire. Would you like an apple? I've brought some with me.'
'Later, perhaps. Chris, there's something we wants to talk to you about. It's winter now, and that's a hard time for us.'
'Yes, I know. It's cold, isn't it? I suppose you feel the cold more as you get older.'
'You does, Chris, but that isn't the only thing that makes it hard for us. Has you ever heard of a place called Bolvangar?'
And he told the story of how he once lived in a part of London called Limehouse, oh, more than sixty years ago it was now, when he was about our age. How he stole money, and did other, awful, things, to make enough to get by because he'd been turfed out of the workhouse, which was the only life he knew, when he and Sal were only thirteen years old.
'Is that why you don't live in a Home now? Because it's too much like a workhouse?'
'Yes, I thinks it could be. But also; we can't stand talking to old people! You asks them how they is - to be polite, see - and they gives you this long list of all the ailments they has and all the pills they takes until you wishes they would just give it a rest and shut up. And their houses smell funny, too.'
We laughed, Jemima and me.
Then he told us about how he and his friend Maggie had travelled north to Bolvangar, looking for Maggie's little brother Stan who had been taken by the Gobblers, who were part of the Church. 'The Church was the most powerful thing there was in those days,' he said. I knew a bit about this from our history lessons. But when Mr Shire told us what they had found in bitter heart-frozen Bolvangar - the experiments, I mean - I refused to believe him. 'It's all true, ' he said. 'Every last word of it. When the weather's chilly and the snow falls it all comes back to us, as real as ever.' I looked in his eyes and I realised that he was telling us the absolute truth.
'They've never said anything about this! It's too horrible!' My own eyes were filling with tears. Those poor children and their lost daemons! I hugged Jemima close to my heart and whispered to her that we would never ever be parted, until the world ended. 'And not even then,' she softly replied.
'They don't tell us about this in school,' I said. 'Why don't they tell us these things?'
'They wants to forget. They doesn't want to admit to themselves that people can do those sorts of things. How would you tell them?'
I was silent for a long time. Then:
'Jemima and me. We were like those kids in Bolvangar. We were drifting apart. We might have lost our souls too… if you hadn't helped us.'
'Yes, you might.'
Mr Shire told us about the power that had been revealed in him - the power to see the elementary particles he called Dust. 'You sees it too, doesn't you?'
'Yes, I do. It's like a golden sparkling light. I'm seeing it around lots of people now, Mr Shire, not just you. More people every day. What is it?'
'Dust is the consciousness of all the worlds.'
'But what does it mean?' I knew that what I was seeing was something very important, but what was its actual significance?
'It means everything. It's Dust that makes the difference between real life and emptiness. Without Dust, all that we knows would die - death-in-life it would be. You have a gift, Chris, like we has. You can see where the life is - and where it isn't. You'll soon be able to direct the way the Dust flows, I can tell. Our gift is a joy; but it's a terror too. You can use it right, or use it wrong. It's up to you.'
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Winter passed. January, February, March. I kept on making my Saturday visits to Mr Shire's and I never noticed when my sentence of thirty-three and a third days ended. There was the attic to clear out and a new water heater to install in the bathroom to replace the temperamental old geyser that spluttered and banged away in there.
April, May, and the trees turned green and we opened all the windows and shook out the curtains and repapered the rooms in bright colours. Brian left the flat for good, so Flora and me were back on speaking terms again, and I moved up into the Sixth Form at school. Everything was new-made, it seemed. Mr Shire was becoming almost sprightly. The melodeon came out every week now, and he delighted in singing me the new songs he had learned - With A Little Help From My Friends, Tam Lin, Seventeen Come Sunday and The Village Green Preservation Society.
With the coming of spring a new restlessness entered Mr Shire. He repainted the front door with a complicated design of roses and castles - traditional gyptian patterns, he said. Some days I would arrive at the cottage to find a note pinned to the door. He'd gone for a long walk up the towpath and why didn't Jemima and I come and find him? Several times there were boats - working boats - tied up next to the cottage and he would introduce me to their crews; dark-skinned gyptians with few words, searching eyes and pale glimmering auras. Those were the days when, despite Mr Shire's best efforts not to exclude me from the company, I felt like an outsider and would find myself work to do in the garden while he and his friends talked in the front parlour.
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And then one Saturday in June, that final day, I came to the cottage to find that he had gone. There was no answer when I knocked at the front door, so I found the key in its usual place under a stone and let myself in. I called out for him, but there was no reply and when I looked in his bedroom all his cupboards were empty and his drawers turned out.
We were filled with fear. Had he died during the week and been taken away to be buried? Or was he just ill, and in the Peace Memorial Hospital? I was panicking, and not seeing things properly, so it was several endless minutes before I noticed the envelope lying on the kitchen table. It was addressed to me in a thin wavering script, so I sat down in one of the kitchen chairs and tore it open with clumsy hands. This is what the letter inside it said:
I'm not very good at writing letters, and neither is Sal. But I think it's best that I write down what I want to say to you. For one thing, you'll need to show this letter to the proper authorities. We'll come to that later.
When we sold our boats and bought the cottage, we thought we were returning to the land we left all those years before. We thought we had finished with our work on the canals. We've talked about it many times, you and me. You know how hard it could be. We thought we deserved a rest.
We should have known better. We should have known that our life's work wouldn't end just like that. We realised, after we'd only been a few weeks in the cottage, that we'd made a dreadful mistake. Every time we saw a pair of boats locking through just outside our front door we wished we was on them, taking a cargo north to Brummagem or Mancunia.
There were friends watching over us, we know. I am sure that they sent you to me, so we could help each other.
Chris, it was my money, the money I got from selling the Maggie and the Jimmy, that bought the cottage. But something doesn't become yours just because you buy it with money. There has to be more to it than that. It was your hard work made the place what it is today. It's more yours now than it was ever mine. So I'm going back to the water where we belong and I want you to have the cottage for your own.
Here are the words they said I should write:
I, Arthur Shire and Sarastus, being of sound mind and of my own free will, do this day June 7 2065 hereby assign all deeds and titles to the property known as Lockkeeper's Cottage, Cassio Park, Cassiobury to my friend Christopher Johns and Jemima, to be his to occupy and enjoy for as long as he shall live, and on his demise to revert to the Brytish Gyptian Council.
There. Now it's yours legally, as well as yours by rights. I know you'll take good care of it.
Look out for us as we pass by, up the cut to King's Langley and Berkhampstead. We'll be looking out for you.
Arthur and Sal
When I had finished reading the letter I sat at the kitchen table for what seemed like hours with tears streaming down my face. I couldn't bear the thought that I might never see Mr Shire again. However could it have been that I had never got round to telling the old man, or myself, how much I loved him? I could hardly comprehend what it had taken for him to give me his cottage - the cottage that he had bought with the proceeds from the sale of his beloved boats. I wandered from room to room remembering his presence, still very real to me, in each one and promising that I would live up to the wonderful gift of trust that he had made to me.
I took Mr Shire's letter to a solicitor and showed it to him. He shook his quietly luminous bespectacled head sagely, looked in his books, made a few telephone calls and told me to come back the following week. When I returned, he handed me a sheaf of documents. 'It's all most unusual,' he said, 'but completely in order. These gyptian people have some curious ways, but they are not fools and I have always found their integrity to be beyond question. I advise you to keep these deeds somewhere safe. You are a very fortunate young man.' Then he charged me twenty guineas, which I paid him on account with the money I made from my paper round. We moved in to the cottage the following weekend.
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When our day's work is done we like, as he liked, to sit in the front garden and watch the boats passing up and down the canal, and give them a hand working the lock if they look as if they need it. Many of them do need some help; there are more pleasure boats than working craft on the navigation these days. When I go up to university next year, as my teachers say I will if I keep up my studies, Flora and Kalli will look after the cottage during term time.
Often, as I sit in my back room facing the window - for I can't think of the other chair as belonging to anyone else but him - I remember Mr Shire's kindness to me and what he had to say about my ability to see Dust.
'Chris, you have a gift,' he'd say. 'Use it well. Use it for good. And always remember this - A gift isn't for keeping, it's for giving.'
I did not write And His Day's Work Was Done. As Arthur says, George Brooks once sang it, but it was written by T.W. Connor. I merely transcribed the words.
I have wondered since why Chris Johns never originally appeared in any more of my stories. It was probably because the events I describe here occurred so long after the previous ones that I didn't yet know the full background to Chris' life. Well, now I do and, furthermore, I also know about the Holy Way that convulsed the world when Chris was a young boy. I have incorporated that knowledge this newly revised and updated version of His Day's Work.
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This is not the end of the story. No story ever truly ends, does it? But you will be able to find out what happened when Chris and Arthur met for the very last time in the forthcoming tale A Night of a Thousand Stars, soon to appear on this site.