Trains, Drains and Cuckoo Clocks

 

Jacqueline Desai collected things.

She had always collected things, ever since she had been a child. To her the world was filled with small wonders, and having a tangible reminder of each one enabled her to fully appreciate their marvels. Unfortunately, after 40 years of collecting, her three-storey house was crammed with these mementos. The topmost bedrooms were in danger of collapse and cluttered stairs an accident waiting to happen.

Gilbert, a lifelong friend she had known in India before they moved to the UK, tried to persuade her that life could be appreciated without hoarding souvenirs. But, as much as she respected his opinion, the collecting compulsion overruled good advice. Now well into her seventies, the box full of Hornby engines and carriages enabled her to relive her distant youth in the land where steam trains still chugged through the countryside... not that she had any space left to lay out the tracks. And the collection of cuckoo clocks contained birds from every continent, engineered to burst from their little doors on the hour. Fortunately there was no wall space left to hang them, otherwise the neighbourhood would have risen up against the din.

Jacqueline would have carried on filling her house with such treasures until the undertaker came to remove her body from the clutter… had it not been for that problem with the drains. Not hers - hoarder she may have been, but her personal hygiene was immaculate and she would have never flushed anything down the lavatory that was liable to block it. Apparently the main sewer was in danger of collapse. It was Victorian and had survived floods, tractors and heavy goods lorries trundling through the village. Why would it decide to cave in now, especially when HGVs had at last been banned?

Alarm bells should have rung then.

It was obviously a ploy to help justify the compulsory purchase of the houses standing in the way of the bypass demanded by all those lorries, and people who resented having to slow down when driving through the village. Jacqueline had never owned a car, so was too preoccupied to wonder what the local government were planning for her and Gilbert’s homes until it was too late. Most of the other properties earmarked for demolition were either rented out or risked being repossessed, so imposing compulsory purchase orders on them would be a relatively easy matter.

Jacqueline had no intention of moving. This was her family’s house. Since arriving in the country they had worked all hours to buy it while still managing to send money back to their relatives in Simla. Her mother, father and sisters were all gone now, but their presence still lived on in that room filled with memories and a small shrine.

The council persisted. Health and Safety were brought in to declare Jacqueline’s property a hazard. They tried to persuade her to accept the generous offer for the house and move to smaller, sheltered accommodation. There was even a veiled threat that her mental health could be assessed if she remained obdurate.

The last thing this lady in her seventies believed herself to be was frail with declining intellectual faculties. The council’s evaluation was fair, and she had to admit that it was tempting, especially after Gilbert tried to dissuade her from campaigning against a car lobby that had never been known to lose.

The councillor driving the scheme was a renowned mover and shaker (longhand for bully) and was not going to allow some dotty old Indian woman to stand in the way of his greatest achievement. Even if Jacqueline hated him to the grave and beyond, motorists would venerate his memory and the villagers whose lives it didn’t disrupt insist that the bypass had been needed. And, although Councillor Biggins took great care to conceal the fact, the contract would also maximise the vested interest he had in the company building the road. It was the same one which had constructed his 12 room mansion on the outskirts of the village which was more suited to a potentate contemplating his fiefdom than a corrupt local councillor. Some did oppose his proposals, but without success. Over the years, as leader of the parish council, he had ensured the village became gentrified to the point where they could be dismissed as socialists.

The only resident Councillor Biggins thought twice about crossing swords with was Gilbert. He had the bearing and forthright manner of a major general and handlebar moustache of an elder Sikh, and had obviously known people in high places. Fortunately it was apparent he did not want the woman he so admired to spend her later years fighting a cause she could not win. He was counting on Gilbert to encourage Jacqueline Desai to agree to the sale, as he had done, and move with him to warmer climes, well away from his little empire. The exchange rate meant that she would be a wealthy woman in her home country. The best pieces of her collection could be put into storage: much of it must have had some value, especially one or two antique cuckoo clocks and Hornby train sets. Then there was the furniture, some of it brought from India so many years ago.

Reluctantly, Jacqueline agreed that they sort out the most precious items, box them up and rent a van to take them to a secure lock-up garage. That still left mountains of objet d’art, mouldy books no charity shop would accept, clothes she had never worn and never would, inlaid tabletops without legs, garden tools, boxes of enamelled tiles she had intended for walls it was no longer possible to get to, and long obsolete computers and peripherals. Most of it was only fit for the bin, though the Apple1 computer of her brother was immediately snapped up for an appreciable sum by the first collector they approached.

Once the compulsory order had been agreed, Councillor Biggins was able to relax, the last barrier to his great venture and comfortable retirement removed. Nothing could stop the bypass now, so he took his family on that extended holiday he would have had months ago had Jacqueline Desai not caused him so much trouble.

At least his absence meant that she could remain in the old house until he returned and the demolition teams were instructed to move in.

Without the houseful of mementos coming between them, Jacqueline and Gilbert were at last able to admit that they had always been attracted to each other, and not just as lifelong companions. At one time, so long ago they had forgotten when it was because so many things had intervened, they had made a tryst to run off together and set up home in Simla where they had both grown up. Jacqueline’s cousins still lived there, caretaking the land and family house bequeathed to her. Jacqueline and Gilbert often conversed in Hindi so could easily slot back into that sweetly remembered world of their childhoods.

But there was something she had to do first, and without Gilbert knowing. He would not have approved. Given how many villagers resented the domineering Councillor Biggins, it was unlikely anyone would try to stop her had they found out. Knowing that she had mischief in mind, the gardener of the mansion’s grounds not only lent her the keys to its front door, but his wheelbarrow as well. As far as he was concerned, the property could look after itself: the councillor didn’t pay him enough to be caretaker as well. He just turned over in bed as Jacqueline trundled up the drive at the dead of night with loaded wheelbarrows, impressed that a woman of her age could move so much in such a short a time.

At last, after a week of going to and fro, Jacqueline gave back his wheelbarrow and the keys.

 

Several weeks later Councillor Biggins returned with his wife and sons. He was bronzed, refreshed, and ready to dream up more money-making schemes at the expense of the population he gazed down on.

While his sons unloaded the suitcases, he opened the door to the front hall and stepped inside.

It was last thing he did.

The mocking call of cuckoo clocks rang out as a precariously balanced mountain of musty books and avalanche of other worthless objects tumbled down into his path. That alone would not have harmed anyone. But the councillor’s gluttony and lack of exercise ensured that his cholesterol-coated arteries could not cope with the shock. By the time an ambulance arrived his heart had given up.

Everyone knew who had been responsible of course, but no one could prove it. The gardener, especially, was admitting nothing; Councillor Biggins’ widow would be a much easier employer and, after being married to the bully for so long might well have thanked him and Jacqueline. The police believed the main suspect must have had help moving all that rubbish: a small woman in her mid-seventies couldn’t have managed it alone, and the worst she could have been charged with was trespass. Usually, people broke in to take things, not deliver them. The fact that the man’s health was in such a dire state could hardly be blamed on her.

And, of course, no one knew where she was.

The bank accounts Jacqueline Desai and Gilbert of had been cleared out, leaving no electronic trail of their whereabouts, and the money from the stored collectables donated to an animal charity.

Without Councillor Biggins driving it, the plans for the bypass fell through and the houses marked for demolition sold to a property speculator who turned them into expensive second homes.