Johnny was sitting at the table in Mrs Callaghan’s dining room. One hand tapped the white tablecloth and the other, cigarette clamped between index and thumb, made regular journeys between the ashtray and his full lips. It was nice to have a job where the client allowed smoking indoors. The tea Mrs Callaghan had served – brick red with two sugars – was also to his liking.
Mrs Callaghan reminded Johnny of old Pat, his grandmother. Pat had already been dead four years. She had kept the same sort of neat little house as Mrs Callaghan; a similar kind of pattern-rich carpet in the front room with its three piece suite and magazine rack full of old Radio Times and copies of Peoples Friend; a kitchen that would have been very a la mode sometime in the early seventies with its pale blue formica worktops; a spotless dining room chilly with under-use, dominated by a glass fronted cabinet, packed shelf upon shelf with glass ornaments, tea sets and Willow pattern teapots.
Opposite where Johnny sat, on the window sill where he had left his screwdriver, there were framed school portraits of Mrs Callaghan’s two children, a son and a daughter. They were standing before the same brown and blue cloud background he himself had stood before as a little kid in Flora Stevenson Primary. There were four smaller school portraits of grandkids. Mrs Callaghan had mentioned a daughter who lived in Glasgow with a husband called Dave. Dave worked at STV. There was also a son who lived in Aberdeen and worked on the oil rigs. Neither son nor daughter visited very much. As mere guests at Mrs Callaghan’s house everyone under the age of fifty or sixty was treated as generously and with as much forbearance as a visiting daughter or son might be, as though there was still so much mothering left over.
Johnny liked Mrs Callaghan and not just because she reminded him of old Pat. She was a retired nurse too, and had worked down at the Western General for nearly forty years. ‘Right from the day I finished my training up at the nursing school on Belford Road – the Modern gallery 2 it is now,’ she told him. It was possible then, if not in fact probable, that Mrs Callaghan and he had met before, when he was only six and stuck those three long weeks in the children’s ward with his two legs in plaster.
The surgeons had messed up a little straightening out his legs, but on balance, standing six foot five as an adult, he was better off with straight legs and a weak left foot than he would have been with bandy pins of his infancy. In any case the limp didn’t hamper him much. Schooldays bullies had shrunk in stature and into the past, and women throughout his adult life had been reassured and maybe even attracted to the apparent vulnerability his mild disability endowed him.
The doorbell rang out in the hall. He could hear Mrs Callaghan going to answer it, the sound of her slippers on the carpet. He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray and listened carefully as she turned the deadlock, unhooked the security chain and operated the chubb.
‘Hello love. It’s me, Bill. We were going to take a look at your trees again.’
Mrs Callaghan bid him, ‘Come in, come in.’ There was a short pause and then she added, ‘Oh. And who’s this?’
‘Just my apprentice love. Davy. I’m showing him the ropes. Part of a youth scheme. Say hello Davy.’ There was an indistinct grunt. ‘Just go through Davy and take that down to the back of the garden.’
Johnny heard Davy passing along the corridor and on to the linoleum floor of the kitchen. The back door to the garden opened.
Just outside the dining room door Bill continued, ‘So, love. Like I said last week when I was cutting your grass. The branches of your willow tree were getting a bit wild. We don’t want them getting into the wires and bringing the telephone company on your back, do we. They need some pruning I think.’
Johnny shook his head. This was no gardener. He had taken a look at the tree when he arrived and it needed pollarding, not pruning. There were heavy footsteps on the carpet outside the dining room door.
‘We’ll just go get started. Do you want to put the kettle on, love?’
Bill shouted ‘Davy,’ from the door to the kitchen and then stepped out the back. The next time he spoke his voice was somewhere halfway down the poorly cut lawn he had worked on the week before.
Johnny stood up and went quietly to the window and peeked around the edge of the lace curtain. The sun had climbed over the neighbour’s fence and the garden was suffused in watery, orange light. Bill was about five foot ten and balding on top. His jeans were hitched up under the overhang of his paunch. He wore a black and red checked shirt and a dirt encrusted baseball cap. He was talking inaudibly to Davy. Davy, a few inches taller than Bill, was an ill-shaven, skinny kid in his early twenties. His grey, grubby trackies were stretched out shapeless at the knee. A horizontal striped t-shirt was covering his weedy trunk. The laces of his white trainers were loose. They were both stood next to the tree needing pollarding and Bill was pointing up to it in what looked like a pretence of instruction. Johnny could tell they were discussing something else. They kept glancing back toward the house. Mrs Callaghan stepped carefully down the steps from the kitchen to the little crazy-paving patio carrying two cups of tea. Johnny saw Davy nudging Bill, alerting him to her approach. Bill came quickly up to her and relieved her of the cups and bid her with a nod of his head to follow him.
The three of them gathered beside the tree and Bill was directing Mrs Callaghan’s attention to the upper branches. She was nodding at his recommendations and Davy was casting his eye about the garden. Pausing in the giving of his explanations, Bill turned to the inattentive Davy, took his teacup from him and with a nod bid him go collect something from the van. Davy nodded, jogged back up toward the house and entered the kitchen.
Johnny listened to his footsteps cross from the linoleum to the carpet of the hallway and waited in hope, but not expectation, that they should continue to the main door. The door handle to the dining room actuated and weight was pressed against it from the other side. Unless Davy was prepared to kick the door down it wouldn’t open against the bolt that Johnny had installed that morning. The door handle returned to its idle position and he could hear Davy’s footsteps continue to the next door along the corridor which was to the master bedroom. Quickly checking that Bill and Mrs Callaghan were still down at the tree Johnny pressed an ear to the wall adjoining the bedroom. Davy opened and shut the seven drawers in the chest and the two in the dressing table. There were a few moments of silence and then the whoomf of the mattress falling back in to place. Johnny knew Davy wouldn’t find anything there. Finally there was the clop of the ceramic lid of the bone-china pot on the windowsill and the crumple of paper.
Davy’s footsteps exited the bedroom and crossed over into the living-room. There was no hearing his work there but it wasn’t a problem. Johnny had heard enough already. Bill’s voice was approaching. He was telling Mrs Callaghan to just wait a moment while he went to see what was ‘…keeping that boy Davy’.
Entering the house Bill called, sotto voce, ‘Davy?’
From the living-room Davy answered, ‘It’s okay.’
‘Okay. Go out to the van. Bring the loppers and a rake.’
‘In fact, forget the fucking rake. We’ll just kick the stuff up to the fence at the back.’
Johnny’s mobile vibrated silently in his jeans pocket. He would get the message later. The front door was opened and while Davy was going out to the van Bill returned to the garden, calling good-naturedly to Mrs Callaghan, ‘He’ll just be a moment love, and we’ll get this tree sorted out.’
Johnny pulled a chair from the dining table and set up shop at the window with a narrow view round the seam of the net curtain to the back garden. Bill and Davy walked down to the tree together, the latter carrying a set of loppers. After a brief discussion Davy struggled up into the branches and set to work, indiscriminately lopping and sawing away branches with a diameter no greater than the wrist of a small child. Bill took each fallen twig and branch to the far end of the garden and threw them into an overgrown flower bed. The entire job only lasted ten minutes. Coming back from his final trip to the back of the garden Bill stopped under the tree, clapped his hands of dirt, and bid Davy jump down. They had another brief chat and then they were on the way back to the kitchen. Mrs Callaghan met them at the kitchen door.
‘Is that you boys?’
Bill told her, ‘That’s us love. All done.’ He stepped back so that Mrs Callaghan could step out of the kitchen on to the patio and take a look down the garden at the tree. It was looking like any healthy tree would look if attacked indiscriminately by a truck load of falling axes. They hadn’t even attempted symmetry. Three branches near the crown were left untouched and they the only branches threatening to interfere with the wires radiating out from the telephone post in the neighbour’s garden.
Mrs Callaghan asked, ‘What about those branches higher up?’
Bill was ready for her. ‘Oh those love? You don’t want us cutting those. They’re the growers. Special to every tree, love. You have to leave them or the tree weakens.’
‘If we cut them I wouldn’t give that tree more than six months before the rot sets in. That’d be a shame.’
‘Is that right?’
‘That’s the way it is.’
‘Well, you’re the expert Mr…’
‘Bill. Just call me Bill love.’ He held out his arms and ushered her toward the kitchen door. Johnny went quietly to the dining room door, slipped the bolt and exited into the hallway. Bill was saying in the kitchen, ‘So. Would you be able to settle up now? We’ve got a few other wee jobs to get done before lunch.’
Mrs Callaghan asked ‘Was it a cheque or cash we agreed?’
‘A cheque would be fine, but if you could do cash I could maybe take a little off the price of the job, love.’
‘And how much would that be again?’
‘Well, let’s see. What was it the last weeks job?’
‘Was it three hundred pounds?’
‘Was it? Ah, yeah. I think you’re right.’ Johnny imagined Bill nodding his head thoughtfully before continuing, ‘This time. You see this time we have two men on the job. You know. And then there’s the consultation, and materials and the labour of course and the clear up. There was a pause while he calculated. ‘Shall we just say four this time?’
‘Four hundred? I’m not sure I…now let me see.’
Johnny knew that Mrs Callaghan was opening her purse just as he had told her to, ‘I’m not sure I have…I have let me see.’ She counted out the fifty pound notes, ‘Fifty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty, two hundred, two hundred and three hundred … I don’t have more than that.’
‘You don’t? Ah, you see now. That’s a pity love because…’
‘No. Not in my purse. But the living-room. I think I might have some more in there.’
‘That would be great love. You lead the way.’
They were outside the door. Mrs Callaghan invited them, ‘Please. This way,’ The curtains were drawn and it was dark in the living room. Bill entered first, closely followed by Davy, and tried the light switch just inside the door. No light came on.
Remaining in the hallway as instructed Mrs Callaghan told Bill, ‘If you go right in dear. There’s a table lamp beside the television.’
‘Right you are love.’
Bill crossed the room, followed half way by Davy. As Bill leant down and turned on the light the living-room door swung quickly and loudly shut behind them. They both turned sharply at the noise. Johnny was sitting in Mrs Callaghan’s high armchair. In the silent pause that followed he lifted his lighter to a new cigarette propped in his mouth and lit it.
Bill was the first to speak. Davy had stepped back from where Johnny sat to stand closer to him.
‘Hello mate? You gave us a bit of a fright there. You a friend of Mrs Callaghan?’