Johnnersintheraw's Blog

May 24, 2010

The Knackers

An old house, an old Horse, and a very young Turnip

Quick, scampering footsteps echoing from high above their heads, after which – as though they were the rhythm section bringing up the rear – there followed the heavier, more ponderous footfalls of something larger and slightly ungainly. With clompy feet. Sometimes the larger of the beasts – the one with the clompy feet – was prone to lumber, and perhaps to limp just a little bit.  But at other times its gate was spritely, like a dancer, and well-collected as though the beast was preparing for a race.

“What is that, papa?” asked the little boy, cocking his head to one side and gazing up at his father.

“It is a ghost,” replied the father in a quiet, thoughtful whisper.  And he gave the little boy a fatherly hug.

“What sort of ghost?” demanded the child. “And may we go and see it?”

“No,” whispered the father, in a voice so low that not even the ancient walls of the house could overhear.

“But why not?” demanded the little boy.

“Shhh…” interjected the father.  “Let me put you to bed and I shall tell you a little story.”

“Please, papa,” whimpered the lad. “Not another story!  Not when there are ghosts about, and in the rooftop of our very own house.”

The father hugged his little son to his chest and lifted him into his arms. “Come along, my son. Time for bed.”

The little boy started to whine, but his father put his finger to his lips, “Shhhhhhh,” he murmured mysteriously, and then with his forefinger he pointed towards the ceiling.  “You don’t want them to hear you, do you?”

The father carried his son, wrapped in a blanket against the chill of the evening, and climbed the old staircase up to the next floor.  “Where are we going?” whispered the boy.

The father merely shook his head, and walked to the far end of the first floor gallery and to a small, green baize-covered door.  He inserted an old skeleton key into the lock.  And, surprisingly – for it looked like it hadn’t been opened for fifty years or more – the door swung open (silently, with but a whisper) on well-oiled hinges. The corridor beyond – a high narrow passageway such as those the housemaids might have used in bygone days to carry copper urns of boiling water up to the bedrooms – was surprisingly free of dust.

The little boy craned his neck to see where they were going, but his father held him close and shielded his eyes.

“Keep your eyes closed, my son.” whispered the father.

“But why?” answered the son in rebuke.

“Because this part of the house belongs to the ghosts,” replied the father solemnly. “And if you open your eyes, you might frighten them away.”

“Oh, very well.  If I must!”  said the son impatiently, for he was a curious bright-eyed lad and didn’t like to be kept in the dark.

On and on along the dingy passageway they walked and walked and walked, and the father was careful to make no noise.  He even avoided those places where the floorboards creaked.

The little boy looked at him in wonder.  “Why are you walking in such a funny way, papa? Are you playing hopscotch?”

To which his father whispered in his ear, “Parts of the floor are asleep, my son.  And if I step on their heads and wake them up, they will rouse the whole house.”

“You mean they will scream the house down!” trilled the little boy.  But then catching sight of his father’s pained expression, he thought of the punishments in store if he didn’t mind his manners.  “I don’t really fancy one of father’s spankings,” he said to himself.  And so to save face, he looked gravely up at his father and frowned.  “You’re silly!” he scowled in a gravelly voice.  After that, they continued walking down the hallway of shadows in silence.

At the end of this very, very long and high-ceilinged corridor they came to another door – a tall, narrow door – and again the father took the old key from his pocket, and put it into the lock.  And once again, the door opened like butter.  And when it had swung open it revealed yet another long corridor – this one as clean as the last – only, unlike the passageway they had just left behind, this one had a steep and ancient staircase leading up from the opposite end to the attics above.                                                                           

The house in the woods was a very old house, with gables and chimney pots and ill-fitting leaded windows with hand-blown panes cut like diamonds.  Windows – so many windows – all of which rattled and slammed both from the wind outside, and from the howling draughts within that prowled the vast, empty spaces like ravening wolves.

The house had – not counting those chambers and offices that did not count as rooms themselves – forty-four rooms – big and small.  And in each one of these forty-four rooms was a fireplace – plus two fireplaces in the hall and three in the ballroom.  And in even those rooms which did not count as rooms – such as the servant’s hall next to the kitchen or the servants’ bedrooms themselves – there were smaller hearths.  In the servants’ bedrooms, they were not really large enough to combat the winter’s gales, but sufficient to break the chill and for warming a body slightly before climbing into bed.   

The wall-to-wall hearth in the large, vaulted kitchen had long-since been bricked up and in its recess was a combination coal-burning/gas-burning range – powerful enough to heat the water for the house’s needs and to fill all the housemaids’ pitchers four or five times a day.  However, even this giant of an Aga had been rendered redundant with the passage of time;   in the more modern sinks and showers installed to meet the more modern trends, this method of heating water had been supplanted by the more economical and convenient ascots.  And a cooker – a smallish, chrome-plated, arrogant post-modern appliance that cocked its snoot at the ancient range – was used for most of the cooking.   

The family that lived in the house, unlike so many of their generation, were sentimental when it came to both the cavernous kitchen and to the many other rooms that fanned out from it in every direction – rooms (that were not really counted as room) such the pantry and the larder and the bakery and the silver and china vaults, as well as the high narrow chamber where the glassware was kept.  Adjoining the vaults was the Butler’s pantry, a good-sized sitting room-cum-office which had served the house as both a ship’s bridge and its engine room; for if it was those ‘upstairs’ who supposedly ‘ruled’, it was the butler who was the prime minister and who kept the ship of state’s many departments running as smooth as silk. Next to the butler’s pantry, was the office and sitting room of the deputy leader:  the house-keeper.  These latter two rooms had proper fireplaces of their own, as well as small cloakrooms. However, once again, these fireplaces did not count in the inventory as being among the forty-nine proper fireplaces, for these rooms – although the nerve centres of the house – were not really rooms at all.  They were, after all, below stairs. – and although their fireplaces were in every sense proper fireplaces, they did not count among the forty-nine, having been more recent additions.  Besides which, since they had been among the first to have been converted to gas no one ever thought of them as fireplaces, but as gas fires.

On the opposite side of the kitchen from the nerve-centres, was a very long, wide and gloomy corridor which lead to such offices as the scullery and laundry and buttery, and from there to the time capsules of a long-forgotten world: to the butchery and the dairy and to a door leading to the kitchen gardens and greenhouses.  And to the all-important flower-room.

Along this wide, gloomy, ill-lit corridor were sixteen bathrooms, and since all sixteen had been built according to specifications provided by the United States government during the Second World War – when the house had been requisitioned as a rehabilitation centre for wounded American pilots – each of these sixteen bathrooms had a toilet. To the ancient retainers who were still living on the property during the war and who had been re-housed in the tiny labourers’ cottages down by the farm – these bathrooms were both a scandal and an abomination, and they caused them much distress.  As far as they were concerned, these American-style bathrooms reeked of the Scarlet Whore of Babylon – for their architect was a Catholic of Italian descent – and foretold the beginning of end of the world “as we know it.” In short, they were the thin edge of the wedge.

After the war when the family was allowed to reclaim their property, they had asked that these additional bathrooms be removed.  However, somehow – what with one thing and another and the squabbling between the two governments over who would foot the bill – they remained where they stood.  And became repositories for dust and grime and such junk as abandoned rooms are known to attract.  But fortunately, by that time, the ancient retainers were all long-term residents of the churchyard; they didn’t have to suffer this additional humiliation – at least not on this side of the grave.

Such modernisations that had been carried out after the war mainly centred on the replacement of the lead which had for centuries kept the rain from getting in and ruining the fabric of the ancient house. Again there was squabbling amongst the various government ministries, and between the two countries.  More and more squabbling.  More and more bickering.  Seemingly endless squabbling and bickering. For the Americans – who had stripped the roof in order to sell the lead to buy fuel to burn in the fireplaces – vehemently denied any knowledge of the vandalism.  “We will, of course, look into the matter. But according to our records, it never happened.” But when it was pointed out that they had also burned a considerable portion of the panelling, as well as most of the first-editions in the library – a claim that was verified by several of the soldiers who had been a party to the whole affair, the US Government agreed to cover the damages.  However, since the money was eventually re-directed to help pay the interest on the US war loans, not a farthing ever made it to the house.

Not that had mattered much.  For the family was simply happy to have their home back and more or less in one piece. They sold part of the land to pay for the re-sealing of the roof, and still another parcel or two for such modernisations as would make the old building feasible.  They laid on gas fires in the four or five rooms in which they lived, added two extra bathrooms and toilets for such staff as they could afford, and two bathrooms (with adjacent toilets) for themselves.  They also built a small kitchen for everyday use in an old storage room off the scullery, again laying on gas and electricity and all the mod-cons. 

The four or five rooms in which the family now lived were in a small wing on the ground floor to the rear of the house, facing the rose garden.  Or what had been the rose garden before it had been given over to the planting of root vegetables.  The rooms on the first and second floors were kept in good repair for they were graceful and well-proportioned and might one day – or so the family hoped – prove to be useful.   

The third floor and the attics were not used at all, and because of the damages inflicted on the roofs far above, they quickly fell into disrepair. And it was in these dark and abandoned parts of the house that the rooms and passageway offered shelter to such displaced ghosts and spirits as were seeking a place to lay their weary heads.  If only because in such an ancient and crumbling ruin, no one would think to bother them.  

Some years after the war, the main stair case leading to the third floor fell into disrepair and eventually collapsed, leaving only the small back service stairs for access. This back stairwell could be reached through a back hall on the ground floor – the utility passageway that led to the stable yard and smithy and to the maintenance sheds, and from there down the lane to the farm itself.  The one door that led from this hallway out into the stable yard had – for reasons it kept to itself – jammed itself shut and no force on earth could open it.  The principal reason for its behaviour was that it was a selfish and crabbed old door that did not like to be disturbed – besides which, it suffered much from rising damp and the rheumatics, causing its hinges to swell up ‘something awful’.  For more than twenty-five years (not counting the time some village rowdies broke it down for a lark and spray-painted slogans on the William Morris wallpaper in the old morning room) this temperamental oak door had kept itself locked and barred against all intruders.  The family, who were sympathetic to the door, had long-since given up on it; they simply used the French doors in the room that was now serving as their drawing room.

Perhaps they knew – or suspected – that the door had a secret.  Perhaps they knew that its hinges only appeared to be swollen and locked in place.  And perhaps its condition was a message to the family and others of the human race.  After all, hadn’t humans always abused the door – kicking it open and slamming it shut and knocking things against its panels?  Such treatment was all very well when a door was younger and when its paint was fresh, but quite another after so many centuries had passed.  For nobody – not even the most sympathetic member of the family – seemed to care how an old door looked or how it felt.  And since it was far older than they – by at least four hundred years – it felt it had a right to be treated with a certain amount of respect.  And when no one obliged it, it simply shut itself up tight, swelled its ancient timbers, and became immovable.  “Let them that wants to go in and out, find another way. I’ve retired!”  But this was only where human beings were concerned.  For the ghosts of the house it was another matter – for they were the ones who waxed its oak panels and polished its brass knocker and kept its hinges oiled ‘a treat’.

But who were these ghosts that haunted the upper corridors and who scampered and danced whenever the chill winter winds swept through the crumbling rooms up next to the roof?  And where did they come from?

Their names – for, indeed, names they had – were Misther and Missus Knacker.  Now, to the world outside their appearance might have been surprising, for they were small and round, and each of them had two little tiny feet at his and her narrow, tapering bottom end – the end that would have reached the floor had not their tiny feet been encased in stout wooden clogs.  On the under-sole of each clog was a little silver bell – and it was these bells that could be heard twinkling and clicking as the two little Knackers scampered back and forth along the principal passageway of the top-most floor.

But who was the other personage that lived under the rooftop and who clomped and strutted and pranced each day when he took his exercise?

His name was Summer Lightning (otherwise known as ‘Slow’) and he was a horse.  Perhaps the best forgotten chaser in the history of chasers.

Old ‘Slow’ (back before he had acquired his nickname, when both his owners and his trainer called him ‘Fast’) had in his time won no fewer than six Gold Cups (in England and Ireland and France and Scotland) and one Grand National Chase in each of those nations.  He was feted and celebrated from one end of the racing world to the other, and had even had a chocolate bar named in his honour (the ‘Fast Bar’, because it went down so fast that one had to buy a second one just to prove to oneself that one had eaten one).

Then one day, whilst grazing in his paddock and talking things over with his companion donkey (‘named ‘Old Ass-‘ole’), ‘Fast’ felt a disturbance in his intestine.  And not wanting to trouble his lad or the trainer, he said nothing.  For the lad was having troubles of his own, having been jilted by his girlfriend, and the owner had awoken one morning with a phobia of horses.  The upshot was that ‘Fast’ was left alone with his twisted intestines, and nearly died.  It was also the end of his illustrious career, for on every one of his subsequent races he could barely make it over the first fence, and always came in a half-hour after the race itself had finish.  Old ‘Fast’ became a laughing-stock.  His ‘trainer’ – who took to breeding Chihuahuas, because – although fierce – they were smaller and could be stepped on in a pinch – started making fun of the horse and calling him ‘Slow’ to his face.  The lad – who was ultimately blamed for the horse’s new-found lethargy – quite racing and joined his father’s investment bank.  And as for the owner (who was the father of the lad), he lost interest, and ordered the trainer to send the former Gold-Cup winner to ‘the knackers’.

For the two days that followed, all the other horses in the yard, as well as the companion donkeys (who, after all, could always get a good job pulling carts for fat men in Egypt) called the newly rechristened ‘Slow’ every name under the, sun, and from dawn ‘til dusk they jeered at him and abused him with the following chant, “To the knackers, to the knackers, to the knackers for you”.  And the owner, who was a greedy ill-spirited brute with two left feet and a snake for a tongue, searched all round the countryside checking out the best per-pound price for a used-up race horse with no bottle and with not an ounce of fat on his bones.  In the end, all he was offered was one pound three shillings and five-pence three farthings, and that from a knackers somewhere near far-distant York.  But it was too little, too late, and so he ordered the trainer (who in the mean time had taken to swilling gin and wormwood-infused tonic water) to do the knackering himself, and to sell the meat to the Doggie Deluxe Dog Food Company, the hide to the Fashion Deluxe Horse Skin Jacket Company, and the bones to the Bony Deluxe Bone Meal Company.

And all the while, over in the yard, the whole world seemed to be chanting “To the knackers, to the knackers, to the knackers for you.”

Needless to say, there were two tiny individuals who did not appreciate the attention.  It was bad enough that they had been born turnips and had been forced to flee for their lives to avoid being added to a cauldron of soup, but now it appeared that the whole world knew where they were!  But, as old Misther Knacker said to old Missus Knacker on more than one occasion, “If they be wantin’ us so bad, why don’t they come up and get us?” To which Missus Turnip replied, “beats me, Elmer.”

It was about then that the youngest of the Knackers’ fifty-seven children, took it upon himself to investigate the situation.  After all, he was very small – practically the size of a walnut – and he was not afraid of anyone. “Let ‘em just try puttin’ ME in a stew,” he liked to say.  And so he waited until long after dark and snuck down the back stairs and out through a crack in the old door.

Within less than fifteen minutes (for even the fastest of turnips cannot run very fast) he had reached the stable yard.  And there – sure enough – were all the foul-smelling villagers of the county, dancing round a campfire and waving their pitchfork in the air.  And on a high platform over the flames, was ‘Slow’, trembling and shaking and sweating and wondering what on earth he had done to deserve such a fate.

The tiny turnip, who was curious about what was going one (for he had never attended a barbeque before) asked one of the revellers (a baby poisonous mushroom that was hoping to volunteer to poison the noisy throng – for they had kept his mam from sleeping), “What’s Up, Ol’ Toadstool, my friend?”

And the toadstool said, in a voice both cruel and loud, “They’re gonna send him to the knackers!”

To which the turnip replied, point up at the house, “But the Knackers aren’t over here!  They’re up there!”

“You sure?” cried the revellers upon hearing the news.

“Yeah, I’m sure!” trumpeted the baby turnip, “and I’ve got my driver’s licence to prove who I am.”  And he showed it to them. 

“His name is Knacker!” yelled the crowd.

And so it was that the chief among the revellers (a potato named ‘Bismuth’) heard about their mistake.  And not wanting to get in any trouble, he ordered the crowd to extinguish the fire and return to their homes.

Within twelve and half minutes, the yard was deserted, leaving only the baby turnip and the horse who had once been known as Summer Lightning.  And the horse told the tiny Knacker his sad story, and asked, “What is to become of me?”

You see,” he said, “I don’t really want to go to the knacker’s yard.  I don’t want to end up as dog meat or a leather jacket or in a bucket of bone meal.  Please don’t make me go!  If you save me I shall be your friend for life – for unless I’m mistaken – a turnip does not have many friends to call his own.  And I promise you this: even though I am partial to turnips myself, I shall never eat you.”

And with that, the baby turnip jumped up on the horse’s back and gave him the biggest hug in the world.  And he said, “But you misunderstand, my sweet friend!”  We are not the knackers; out name is Knacker, and we live peacefully on top of that big house,”

Needless to say, without even being asked, the old door opened wide and let the horse and the turnip enter the house.  And because in his heart Summer Lightning was still the same athlete he had always been, he leaped up the stairs (taking twelve steps at a time) all the way to the attic.  He found there a home, and in all the years since he has remained in those rooms up under the roof.  Just himself and the Knackers and all of the ghosts.  And because it is such an old house and is falling to bits, no one ever goes up to see how they are.  And because they have the wind and the rain and the winter storms to keep them from getting restive, that suits them just fine.

The little boy lay asleep in his father’s lap, his six-year-old head cradled in the crook of his arm.  He had slept through every word of the story his father had told him, but there was no harm in that.  For deep down inside he had heard every word, and for the rest of his life, whenever the wind did blow through the rafters and shake the old windows, and whenever there was heard a mad scuffling of little feet dancing, and the drumbeat of hooves prancing high above his head, the boy always said to himself – and later to his children and to the children they themselves spawned.  “Up there is where the Knackers live, and the drummer who is drumming is the old Gold Cup winner, himself – none other than brave Summer Lightning – he who’d been lost before he was found.  And saved by the love of a turnip.”   

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