"I don't like that noise in the truck," I said sipping, "I think I'll drive down to the garage and let Joe Wheeler have a listen to it."
"It's in the transmission somewhere," Cec voiced his opinion, "sounds like the crown wheel and pinion to me. I hope Alex shows up today."
"He must turn up this morning; he's not going to leave us high and dry over the weekend." As I spoke I pictured Alex moving round the dark bedroom before he left to catch the early morning train, and I had a sudden doubt. I went into the bedroom and felt under the newspaper in the bottom of the wardrobe. "He won't be coming back," I shouted to Cec. "The bastard has gone for good, he's taken my studs." Cec hadn't known about my gold studs, watch chain, and tie pin. "They were my dad's," I told him, "when he died they were given to me. I kept them hidden under the paper, but Alex knew where they were, I showed them to him one day when it was too wet to work. He's shot through with them."
I was stunned. Alex had been my mate for more than a year. "When you have shared with someone as long as I have with Alex, you think you can trust them," I told Cec, "and we were silly enough to give him our last few bob."
Cec and I had given Alex all the money we had when the telegram came asking him to meet his brother in town on Thursday. It was not much, a few shillings over his fare, but he knew we had to wait a week before we got any more. He said he was sure his brother would be holding and good for a loan.
"If I can't get back on Thursday night, I'll wire you some money," he had promised, "I'll be back Friday night or Saturday morning for sure."
We had not worried when he was not on Thursday night's train, but had argued whether we would buy pies and pasties or fish and chips out of Friday's expected telegram.
"Anything left in Miss Onions' bread tin?"
Cec told me it was empty. "There's nothing but a bit of tinned stuff."
We didn't touch her small store of tins. We knew Miss Onions would have happily given them to us, but in her temporary absence from home we helped ourselves only to her perishable scraps. It was her home, she paid the rent, and had let us a room so we could live near the job.
We were carting firewood in my old truck for a Greek named Nick something. Alex helped me load and unload and our meagre earnings just kept us off the dole. We had been there about seven or eight months. Cec had only recently joined us. He had to rely on a bit of axe work or odd jobs in the paddock and was even more uncertain than us of his next shilling. I was glad to have Cec's help while Alex was away and I knew by the way he started poking about the truck that he was pleased when I suggested he should help me.
I was swilling the cups when someone called from the open front door. Miss Peg who kept the tiny store and post office at Stilton was silhouetted there waving a carton of cigarettes. They were a new brand, Black and White; she told us she had bought them from a van salesman. As she was on her way to catch the later Saturday morning train to town could she leave them with us until she returned, or if we were out that way during the day could we drop them in to Harry Barbour who was minding her shop?
Our wood carting took us through Stilton and we often carried a parcel for Miss Peg, they were always only small ones and we never charged her. She would sometimes give us a packet of cigarettes and I was sorry when she went without suggesting broaching the carton. I threw it on top of the kitchen dresser and we left the house.
Cec swung the handle and we started first try, but as we moved off the grating noise sounded louder than I remembered it. It was only half a mile, downhill, to Joe Wheeler's garage, but we crunched to a halt fifty yards short of his driveway. Joe came out and surveyed the battered wreck. "It's the diff, cost you twenty quid." He knew we had no money and was halfway back to his pumps when he remembered to add "mate."
Cec wandered off and I went in search of Nick and financial assistance. I found him, in his usual good humour, in his debris filled back yard. He greeted me with a grin and words of consolation. He would tow my truck to his back yard, we would buy second hand parts and repair it ourselves. "You no cry over spilt milk, eh!" he assured me. When after several tow rope breakings, we reached his yard in compulsive leaps, he took three two shilling pieces from his pocket and thrust them at me. "You no starve", he said, "Nick not let you starve." "You cheer up now eh, you come and have the drink, you come and have the good wine."
I had no wish to drown my sorrows in Nick's demijohn, but had enough sense not to risk antagonising him by refusing. We walked the short distance to the wine saloon. The proprietor produced Nick's gallon jar and after subjecting our stomachs to two glasses of its sulphurous contents, Nick joined a group of his countrymen for further excesses whilst I returned to consult Cec about lunch. I was pleased to see he had cigarettes; he offered me one and told of his good fortune. Walking back to the house he had seen the van salesman and recognised an old workmate. The salesman presented him with a packet of the new brand; he had authority to give a limited number away as advertising. As we entered the kitchen my eyes sought Miss Peg's carton. It was not there.
I looked at Cec with the Black and White packet in his hand. "Did someone pick up Miss Peg's carton?" In turn he looked at the dresser top. "Not to my knowledge, not while I've been here."
Cec said he had been in and out of the house two or three times since he left me, but had not been in the kitchen. Only when I drew his attention to it did he think of the carton. The house was close to the road, the doors were always open, and anyone could have walked in and taken it. We decided that only someone who knew the house and our likely movements would have taken the risk.
We went out the front door and stood on the footpath and tried to visualise what had happened. We made some half hearted enquiries of the nearest neighbours but they had not seen anyone.
It was just possible that Miss Peg had asked someone to pick them up.
We decided to ring the post office, and although it was now afternoon, see if Harry Barbour was still there. On our way to the telephone we called in at Mrs Handel's homemade cake shop and bought pies and pasties. She was pleased to see us, "Could you boys do a job for me?" she asked, taking us through to her kitchen. We were very willing. We had done a few jobs for her, she paid liberally and promptly, and as well usually provided us with a large free meal.
She showed us what was to be done. She had bought another stove, an electric one, and wanted to replace an old wood burning one with it. Our job was to remove the old stove and some of the bricks, to make room for the new one with its side operated switches. "I've got a man coming to smooth it over with cement, if you could just leave it tidy. Mr Handel is in hospital for a check up. I want to go and see him tonight, so I will close the shop about 6 o'clock. If you are not here when I go, I'll leave the key next door."
We agreed to be there and told of the missing cigarettes. "Use my phone," she said, and I did, but there was no answer to its repeated ringing. Mrs Handel found a broken jam tart and gave us both a piece. I left Cec having a second piece and went round to the police station.
Sergeant Adams was on duty. On his desk was a letter from the local farmers club criticising him for not chasing the unemployables, as they called them, out of town. I knew nothing of this letter until it appeared in the local paper the following week, and was unprepared for the reaction by the usually sympathetic sergeant. "Do you usually leave all your doors wide open when you go out?"
"Most people around here..."
"Never mind about most people, I'm asking you! Don't you feel you have any responsibility?" He was shouting. It was like a slap in the face.
"M..Miss Onions never.."
"There you go, most people, Miss Onions, anyone else? It's you I'm talking to, you and your mates, you live in the house, you're trusted by people, don't you think you have any responsibility to look after their belongings?"
I was too dazed to speak. After a moment he stopped glaring at me and spoke more quietly. "Where did you say you put these cigarettes?"
"On top of the kitchen dresser."
"The front passage runs in to the sitting room." He had been in Lilyvale twenty years, "the kitchen is off to the left?"
"Well - there's a short passage between - "
"Yes, yes, what I'm getting at is that anyone standing at the front door couldn't see into the kitchen."
"No, they couldn't see from the sitting room either, they would have to go right into the kitchen."
"Unless it was someone only looking for food, they would search the other rooms first. That would take some time and they would be taking a hell of a risk. It seems someone knew where to look. Who saw you put them there?"
"Well, only Cec."
"What about Miss Peg?"
"She didn't come inside, anyway she caught the train."
"She might have missed the train and come back for them. Anyone seems to wander in and out of that house. Or she might have asked someone to pick them up. Have you tried ringing?"
"Yes, but no one is answering."
Sergeant Adams lifted his receiver and asked for Stilton Post Office. The brrh, brrh, went on and on in the quiet room but was still ignored at the other end. "Too bad if anyone was dying at Stilton this afternoon," he said, replacing the receiver and picking up his pen. "We won't make this official yet." He ignored the report sheet and made his notes on a rough pad. "This Cec, who is with you now, what is his surname?"
I told him.
"And the other bloke, the one who is usually with you, what's happened to him?"
I told him Alex had been with his brother since Thursday, but did not mention the missing studs and chain.
He wrote the names. "What about the bloke on the van, the one who sold them to her, did he know you had them? He could sell them again. Bit far fetched I suppose. What else do you know?"
I told him neither Cec nor the neighbours had seen anyone.
"You smoke," he spoke abruptly staring straight at me.
"Yes" I said. I felt uncomfortable.
"Got any cigarettes?"
He continued staring at me, then, "Have one of these." He opened a drawer and took out a packet of Capstans. "Does Cec smoke?"
"Has he got any cigarettes?"
"Black and White."
"He's got cigarettes, and you haven't got a smoke."
I told him how Cec got his packet.
"He's been sharing them with me but I didn't think to ask him for some when I came to see you."
"Tell me what you know about this Cec Buckingham. You don't have to sell him out, if he's a mate; just tell me what you think I ought to know."
I didn't know much. I told him Cec had been without lodgings and Alex and I had agreed to let him share with us. "He's a good mate, he puts in as much as he can manage and he takes his turn with the housework."
Sergeant Adams didn't comment and I found I was beginning to doubt Cec's honesty. I stopped talking.
"Have one to see you home." The packed was offered again. "Tell Buckingham I want to see him."
Cec was not at home. I found him in the pub drinking at the expense of another wood carter who, having cashed a Railways Department cheque with the publican, was shouting a few friends. I refused an invitation to be included in the next round, we needed what little money I had for food, and the morning wine still lay sour on my stomach. I eased Cec out. With alcohol sustained confidence he went to see the sergeant. I went to the shops for weekend supplies.
They had been closed for some time, but the butcher and greengrocer were still busy cleaning up, and I came away with large parcels of meat scraps and drooping vegetables and fruit. I ate several soft bananas as I prepared a huge stew, and was washing them down with a cup of tea when Cec returned. He was sweating after a rough time at the police station and was glad of a cup.
"You'd have thought he didn't believe a word I was saying the way he kept at me", Cec said of the Sergeant, "but when I was leaving he said he thought I was telling the truth. He's a funny sort of policeman."
It was after six before the stew was cooked, and leaving it for reheating for Sunday's dinner we went to Mrs Handel's. She had left us an enormous meal - ham, cheese, tomatoes, beetroot, celery, pickled onions, home made bread, butter, apple pies, a great plate of cakes, and a note, "Help yourselves to ice-cream out of the fridge." We had intended doing some work before eating but changed our minds. Only dishes were left on the table when we started work on the fireplace.
Many of the bricks were loose and came away easily and we had little difficulty removing the old stove. The hard part of the job was chipping a brick away to get an even surface. We were soon hot and dirty and with sore hands, but by ten o'clock we had a fair finish on the floor and the back and the right hand side of the chimney. The left hand side held us up. The bricks set in a different pattern were harder to remove, and we had to do more chipping. We were cursing it a bit when we heard Sergeant Adams call and Cec let him in the back door.
"There's some bloody fools about", was his greeting, "she's got her cigarettes. She missed the train through stopping to buy them, then when some fellow she knew came along in a car she nipped into your place, and got them back, and without telling anyone went off with him for the day. She said she was so excited at having the day off she didn't think to tell anyone. I think it was the bloke she was excited about. What about in future shutting your front door when you go out?"
We showed him what we had done and pointed out the obstinate bricks.
Mrs Handel returned, made a pot of tea, and filled a plate with cakes; we were a friendly party.
"Leave that side if it is too hard," she suggested, "and take another row out of the other, it might look a bit lopsided but what does that matter."
Cec and I had worked hard to get a good finish on the right hand side; we did not wish to disturb it. Sergeant Adams had another look at it. "That part has been cemented in," he pointed. "That's not ordinary mortar. I think you will need to lever that whole section out and then fill it in again with some of the other bricks."
Cec and I levered - and five stuck together bricks came out. There was a cavity behind them. Cec reached in and brought out a blackened old cocoa tin. I think we all had visions of vast treasure as the sergeant helped Mrs Handel force off the lid. She tipped the tin onto a sheet of newspaper and out rolled hundreds of three penny bits.
It took a long time to count them. There was eight pounds in the small silver coins. Mrs Handel asked the sergeant what she should do with them.
"How long have you been here, ten years?"
"The shop was vacant for a long time before you took it. I don't think anyone will claim the money now. I suggest you split fifty-fifty with the boys and we all keep quiet about it."
He looked at his watch.
"Better knock off for tonight, it's time for bed I think, it's been a long day."