The Norman Conquest

The organisers of the 2018 Queen’s Park Book Festival asked several local authors to write a (very) short story with a local theme, which we each read and discussed at the event.

It might have been better if Max had never heard the doorbell. He’d been listening to the audiobook of the first volume of Simon Schama’s A History of Britain. The chapter about the Norman Conquest. But the bell rang while he was taking a breather, and he’d just plucked out his earbuds to wipe the sweat and grime from his brow. So he heard it.

Max opened the front door gingerly and was less than reassured to discover Tony from Number 17 standing under the porchlight, a glint in his eye. Tony was a big man with the hands of a strangler and a face straight from the imagination of JRR Tolkien. Max dreaded to think what, precisely, he was doing on his doorstep at this time of night.

“Alright, mate,” said Tony.

“Hi, Tony. What’s up?”

“You said I should come round, see what you’ve done to the place.”

“Did I?”

If I did, thought Max, I was only being polite.

“Sorry, geezer. Bad time?”

Well of course it’s a bad time, Max wanted to say, It’s 9.30pm. But he supposed it best not to provoke him, so he stepped back reluctantly and let Tony into the house, trailing a waft of stale cigarettes and sickly aftershave.

Tony grinned. Teeth like a row of condemned Victorian cottages.

“What the fuck have you been up to?” he said, and Max felt a prickle of unease – until he realised that Tony was referring merely to the mud on his clothes.

“Oh, right. Yeah. I’ve been digging up the garden.”

When they bought the house, Max and Poppy had budgeted for the side return extension and an update to the upstairs bathroom. To save a few pennies, though, Max had undertaken to build the patio himself. He was certainly no construction worker, but he’d watched several how-to videos on YouTube and felt pretty confident this was a job he could manage alone. He’d packed Poppy and the children off to her parents for a couple of days while he got on with it, accompanied by Simon Schama and a stockpile of his favourite podcasts.

Tony stepped into the new kitchen, nodding appreciatively at the Smeg fridge and the eight-hob range cooker.

“Can I offer you a drink?” said Max.

“Cheers, mate. Beer if you’ve got one.”

Max put a craft IPA in his hand. Tony eyed it suspiciously before taking a swig.

It was common knowledge among the burgeoning wisteria set in this particular corner of NW10 that Tony was the local drug dealer. Max had no problem whatsoever with most of the neighbourhood’s longstanding residents: the chap who ran the dry-cleaners; the kids who kicked their ball against the outside wall after school; the waitress at the café on the corner who thought a flat white was a kind of panini. Delightful characters.

But Tony represented the unsavoury element. Always loitering on the street with his clique of seedy confederates, sipping lager and smoking weed. Some of us are trying to raise families around here, thought Max, who had taken it upon himself to resolve the issue. He set up a Neighbourhood Watch scheme. He complained to the council. He’d even placed a couple of anonymous 999 calls when there seemed to be more activity than usual at Number 17.

Tony hadn’t budged.

Max showed him into the garden, where he’d carved a sizable rectangle from the turf to lay the patio foundations. His tools and materials were strewn among the garden furniture. He wondered whether Tony knew he was responsible for the campaign of gentle but dogged harassment that was designed to send him packing: Could he be… toying with me?

“Looks bloody wonderful, mate,” Tony said. “I might nick some of your ideas for my place. Do the old side return and that.”

Max sucked in air through his teeth: “To be honest, Tony, it’s been pretty expensive.”

“Oh, I’ve got a bit saved up.”

“You’re planning to stay in the area, then…? Long-term?”

“Oh yeah,” said Tony, his face swimming in shadow. “I’m not going anywhere, mate.”

To Max’s ears, it sounded a lot like a threat. And Tony’s next gambit only compounded his fears: “Where’s that lovely wife of yours then, eh? And the kiddies?”

You don’t bring a man’s family into it, thought Max, who noticed, almost after the fact, that the rubber mallet was in his hand, and that he had landed a glancing blow to Tony’s head with it. Tony made a low sighing noise as he sank to his knees, somehow taking care to set his beer bottle upright on the ground – a considerate houseguest. He looked up at Max, his expression confused and a little sad, as a dark crimson rivulet wormed from his hairline.

Not such a big man, after all, thought Max, who saw that he’d have to finish the job. He fetched the spade quickly, before Tony could regain his footing, and he swung for the boundary. The sound was like a raw steak striking a church bell. Brained, Tony swayed, and then he tumbled sideways into the patio foundation.

Max held his breath, listening as the fast train from Paddington chundered through the cut. He glanced around instinctively for witnesses, but one of the things he and Poppy had liked most about the house was that its back garden was barely overlooked.

Later, when Tony was safely buried beneath layers of sub base, building sand, cement and reclaimed quarry tiles, and once the neighbourhood had started talking about him in the past tense, Max would learn that he had overcome a difficult childhood; that he was still close to his step-daughter, who lobbied the police to more thoroughly investigate his disappearance; that he had acted as a sort of informal mentor to some of the area’s at-risk youth.

But people always say nice things about the dead, Max told himself. He thought Tony could have learned a thing or two from Simon Schama: Some of us are Anglo-Saxons. Some of us are Normans.