Leave my wife alone I said. No he said I will not leave your wife alone, I love her. And so saying he went from the doorstep and taking a small green tent he set it up in the garden and every morning thereafter I was irritated awake by the smell of his infernal little cookstove and a bit later tortured by that of his squalid fried breakfast. He hired a small boy to bring love letters to the front door sixteen times a day, hourly. My wife gave the boy 5p every time; this angered me but as she said it is not the boy’s fault. Besides he is from a poor family. But at 5p x 16 hrs = 80p per diem might I not end up in the poorhouse myself ? But it was not the money. It was the situation. And the smell every morning. My wife’s one pronouncement was It is just a phase. But a phase for who? I said And how long? She, lovely, went to the other side of the garden and planted leeks in silence. While she planted the leeks I was left to answer the door and pay the boy the 5p every hour. Can’t you see she’s just over there by the hedge? I said after he had handed me the third letter. He smiled at me mutely. So he was retarded as well as poor! Darling, I love you, I can’t live without you, be mine. Your worshipper. I stopped reading the letters, they were all the same. And the envelopes were all the same, addressed merely to She. In the morning the letters were often stained with cooking fat or some kind of jam. The letters that came at midday were relatively clean (I think he ate only salads for lunch, made from herbs and flowers growing on the cat’s grave by the tent). The evening letters often smelled of whisky or canned beer and potato crisps. I left the letters in a neat pile on my wife’s table. She would come in from planting leeks and glance at the letters, occasionally sifting through them to see if the message varied which as I have said it did not. Characteristically my wife refused to be drawn into the situation while I became obsessed with it. Even the coalmen stepped around the tent without disturbing him while they made their delivery. It’s probably just a phase! one of them whispered to me. One evening as I sat and watched the smoke from his wretched stove drift past the window I said to my wife Don’t you realise we are tenants of a noble? A man with a title? He’ll take care of this. My wife sewed placidly. She refused to be drawn into the situation but I had become obsessed with it. I dialled the castle. What! groaned a voice. I I I want to talk to His Lordship I said This is me at the west farm. What’s the matter with you? said the voice Do you know what time it is? I do I said What’s the matter with you? His Lordship is asleep said the voice and is always asleep at this hour. Dog’s life, being a life peer I snarled. What is the nature of your business? said the voice. There is a man in a tent in my garden I said. Squatter eh? said the voice. Most indubitably I said feeling I was getting somewhere. Why don’t you tell him to clear off ? said the voice. I have I said. Why don’t you call the police? said the voice. There’s no point I said As you well know only His Lordship can evict someone from feudal land. With the f I filled the mouthpiece with foam. Is he causing trouble? said the voice. He writes love letters to my wife I said. Oh? said the voice lighting a cigarette. He was interested now. Hourly I said They are delivered by a little backward boy who lives down the road. Yes I know the place said the voice His father was gamekeeper to His Lordship for many years. Isn’t that marvellous? I said. The estate cannot mix in affairs of the heart said the voice It’s not good business. It’s not an affair of the heart I said. My wife wants nothing to do with him or the letters. Well perhaps she’s pursuing the best course then eh? said the voice I must ring off now but it has been most interesting. He hung up. I hung up and looked at my wife who was trying to tune in her radio. I put on my hat and stamped out of the house and out the gate slamming it for effect of which there was none and glaring at the tent I stalked down the road toward Muckhart’s house. Muckhart was cleaning his nose, absorbed in its reflection in the window over his kitchen sink. Because of complicated lighting conditions the window acted as a mirror in the interior of the house but approaching from the road I could see Muckhart cleaning his nose. I banged on the door and Muckhart opened it. His dog barked at me immediately and without cessation. Muckhart! I shouted over the dog din Muckhart! Realising the dog would not stop barking Muckhart came out onto the step and closed the door behind him. Immediately the barking stopped. He gave me a merry look and turned toward the door again but as soon as his touch had disturbed the mechanism of the doorknob the furious barking began again. We’d best stay out here! I shouted and he nodded and turned back to me. Muckhart I said There is a man in my garden in a tent. Aye I’ve seen that he said Friend o yours? Not at all I said He is a squatter. Och! A squatter? said Muckhart. Yes I said feeling I was getting somewhere. Weel hae ye askit him tae leave? said Muckhart. It’s more complicated than that I said He’s writing love letters to my wife, once an hour, delivered by a retarded boy. Muckhart scratched his head. Aye that would be the wee boy fae the cottage by the water. I suppose so I said impatiently. Weel dinnae fash yerseel said Muckhart I’ll awa and hae a blether wi his mam in the mornin. No! I said No No No! Not the boy. Oh so ye dinna mind aboot the letters? said Muckhart queerly. I do mind! I said turning red But it’s the man in the tent! I want you to get rid of the man in the tent. But I cannae do onythin aboot that spluttered Muckhart suddenly resentful Ye kens it’s ony the laird as can evict a squatter. He made to enter the kitchen but I stayed him. Listen I said Can’t you arrange to (here I moved my clawlike hands in a foolish imitation of quotation marks) ‘accidentally’ run over the tent with your tractor? Muckhart eyed my gesture without comprehension but took his hand away from the doorknob. He looked out at the evening and taking a pipe out of his pocket he sat down on the step. I sat down beside him and watched him fill the pipe. He tamped the tobacco firmly with his alarming brown thumb which had been in India during the war. He lit the pipe and smoked, silent, staring at the byre. No he said eventually I cannae do that. Why not? I whined. Ye ask me if I couldnae arrange tae accidentally run ooer the tent wi ma tractor and the onser tae that is no. Ye see said Muckhart If I arranged tae dae it it wouldnae be an accident noo would it? And I micht truly accidentally run ooer the tent but I couldnae predict it and indeed the possibility is verrry verrry slim considering (here he got up) yer gairden is separatit fae the road by a ditch and yer wife’s flooers and the grave of yer puir auld puss. He knocked his pipe against the step. Evenin to ye he said and went inside. I was left alone with my thoughts and the road home. It was twilight. Approaching my house and the tent with its accursed tin chimney I suddenly hied into the ditch which rendered me invisible from the garden. I prised up a large stone from the moocky bottom and hurled it at the tent. To my delight it struck the tin chimney, knocking off its little Chinese hat. Hey! came a cry from the tent. Woo! I said Woo! Who’s there? he said still inside. I rustled the weeds on the garden side of the ditch in a supernatural manner. Woo! I said I am the Spirit of this Place. There is great danger here. Woo! He put his head out of the tent, frightened. Woo! I said Leave this place leave this place leave this place. Woo! For God’s sake! he cried Who’s there? Woo! I said It’s me, an awful raw-head bloody-bones! Fly for your life! Woo! The head disappeared into the tent and I heard nothing. Rummaging in the ditch I felt another stone which to my disgust turned out to be a dead toad. Yet I flung it and managed to knock down the tent pole. With a tremendous clatter the whole of him emerged from the collapsed tent. He was wearing an overcoat and had a rope tied around him from which hung his damned pots and pans. He stood and looked with uncertainty at the lifeless toad on the tent, the whole of which was catching fire owing to the stove being upset. Woo! I howled like the wind. Wah! With a shriek he leaped over the fence and began to hurry down the road. Every few yards he tripped over the pans, some of which were very large. I continued to wail until he had disappeared down the road to the south. Bloody Sassenach. I had difficulty in extracting my legs from the mud in the ditch but eventually got up to the garden hauling myself by thistles and brambles. I stood and watched his tent burn and made up incantations which I recited. When I entered the house my wife was still trying to tune her radio. She had refused to be drawn into the situation while I on the other hand had become obsessed with it. The next morning the retarded boy knocked at the door but he had no letter. I was almost happy to see him. I gave him 50p and told him to go home but he came back in an hour, again with no letter and the next hour and the next and the next and the next and the next.
‘Evensong’, by Todd McEwen. © Todd McEwen, 1983. Reproduced with permission.
Photograph © Jonathan Browning / Millennium Images UK