Kenneth Cameron. The Frightened Man

(The Denton series — 1)

Chapter One

The door was made of thin panels, cheap stuff he could put his fist through. She was screaming on the other side. He hated the screams. He raised his fist and saw a knife in it, and he knew where he was then, always this place, this point in this inescapable hell. He shouted at her, meaning to quiet her, but the voice wasn’t his own, something heavy, sinister, frightening: ‘Lily! Lily!’ Her name like blows on the door. He raised his fist and the knife flashed and he

woke. The old dream. The dream more real for a few seconds than the room. He never dreamed of her any more except in this one horror, bellowing her name with a knife in his fist.

He was slumped down in his armchair, one shoulder painful, his neck with a crick in it. Sitting up, rubbing his neck, he came completely to in the present: not the young husband of a suicide but a kind of collage, pieces of him from here and there — that town, the war, the farm — the creation a paste-up of contradictions: an American in England now, a soldier who sought peace, a farmer in a heaving city, a nobody who had become a literary lion. He shook his head the way a dog shakes off water and shouted for companionship.


His voice disappeared into the carpets and the curtains and the padded furniture of the room, which smelled of his cigarettes, of polish, of coal, of gas, of fish that he had had for supper.


He heaved himself up, grumbling, strode down the room through the arch, past the alcove where he kept a spirit stove and dishes and bottles, down to the end of the room where a turn to the left led to the stairway and the upper shadows, and to the right was the door down. He opened it, put his head through. ‘Sergeant!’

At the bottom, a door opened, a fan of green-grey gaslight widening on the floor. ‘Well, what is it?’ Then, before he could answer, ‘We’ve got a bell, you know.’

The old argument. ‘You know I don’t like to use the bell.’ He meant that he didn’t like summoning a man with a bell, but he wasn’t arguing, only going through the motions because he was grateful for another voice.

‘This ain’t a democracy, General. You pay me enough to call me with a bell, just like a dog. Plus I don’t like being shouted at, do I?’

‘You got some biscuits down there?’

‘Biscuits!’ Biscuits were, the voice said, unimaginable. In fact, Atkins was chewing something as he said it. ‘I could rustle up a biscuit, I suppose.’

‘Bring some up, will you?’

‘Cheese, too — you want cheese, I suppose.’

‘If you have it-’

‘Apples? Nice apples in the shops now. Cheese and apple, very tasty.’

‘Anything, anything.’

‘Oh, yes, my eye!’I’

Denton closed the door. He was smiling now. The sergeant’s performances always cheered him, as they were meant to. Sergeant Atkins, ex-of the Fusiliers, pretended he had missed a career in the music halls, now believed he had found it with his employer. And in fact he had; Denton had hired him for the cheeky persona. He walked back down the long, sparsely lighted room, which he no longer saw with any great interest. A year of living in it had dulled his taste for green velvet, gold fringe, dark wood, Karamans bought second-hand. The books, on the other hand — the books were another matter, his and other people’s, in ranks on either side of the bow-topped black stone fireplace, books rising to the dark cornice that loomed into the room at the top of every wall.

He sat again in the same chair — big, deep, green, comfortable — and touched his moustache and his upper lip, an old habit. The moustache now grizzled, worn rather long, the lip thin, fingers big and hard that had held a plough and harnessed horses in cold so deep it made the trees pop like rifle shots, now softer, calluses gone; the pen may not be mightier than the plough, but it is easier on the hands. His nose was too big, a beak, a proboscis, a scimitar, a nose for Mr Punch, thin down the bone with deep-flared nostrils, dominating the face, somehow not comical at all but rather threatening. Consider this nose an eagle’s beak, it seemed to say — never mind the chin, that’s irrelevant, watch the nose and the eyes, which have all the warmth of two dry pebbles until the mouth smiles and the wrinkles form above the cheeks; then you may relax a little and know I won’t bite.

‘What a mess,’ the sergeant groaned, coming through the door. He hadn’t seen the remains of the supper tray yet; saying it was a mess was merely habit. Now he was halfway down the room and could see the tray; ‘A right mess,’ he said with gloomy satisfaction. He was carrying another tray in both hands, on it two kinds of biscuits, Stilton, Cheddar, something smelly that proved to be an Italian cheese he identified as pecorino, meaningless to Denton.

‘Join me?’ Denton said.

‘Not tonight, thanks. Port?’ Atkins unfolded a two-tiered biscuit table and began to lay things out.

‘Have some yourself, if you like.’

‘You finished with me, then?’

‘You’re in a great hurry to be gone. What’ve you got down there, a woman?’

‘I’m writing me memoirs, Thirty Years a Soldier-Servant. Some of the scenes of polishing boots are quite exciting. Actually, I’m having a good read through Lever again. You lonely, want my company?’

‘I’m going out.’

‘I know that! I’ve laid out your clothes, haven’t I? What time — half-ten?’


‘Opera don’t let go easily, does it?’ Denton was meeting a woman named Emma Gosden after the opera, but he wouldn’t sit through it with her. The sergeant was nibbling a biscuit now. He said, ‘See here, General.’ A typical Atkins opening.

‘Now what?’

‘What would you say to a mechanical safety razor?’ Atkins, unlike many ex-soldiers, didn’t believe that buying a pub was the key to heaven: he saw his future as a captain of industry, preferably in domestic goods. He was attracted by ‘getting in at the start’ of some money-making business.

‘I’d say it was daft.’ Denton had already heard about a self-sealing chamber pot, a carpet sweeper that sprayed scent and a bicycle-powered mangle.

‘Winds up with a key, like a clock. Put it to your face, turn it on, does all the work.’

‘And then you send for the ambulance service.’

‘Ten pounds, I can have a third of the business. The latest thing.’

‘You’d do better with a tip on a horse race.’

Atkins nibbled another biscuit and said, ‘Hmm,’ and then, ‘Faint heart never won fistfuls of money.’ He picked up a third biscuit. ‘Coming in later or shall I double-lock?’

‘I’ll be back, but I’m not sure exactly-’

The outer bell rang. The sergeant threw down the biscuit. ‘What the H?’ He went to a door, almost opposite the fireplace, that led down to the street entrance. ‘Shall I answer it, or am I off duty?’

Denton looked at the mantel clock — ormolu, ugly as sin, came with the house — saw that it was only a few minutes before ten. ‘Better see.’

The bell rang again; Atkins groaned. ‘Oh, Chri — crikey.’ He opened the door. ‘All right, all right, I’m coming, don’t put the bell through the bleeding door-’ His voice dwindled down the stairs. Cold air blew in from the lower hall, a depressing space that existed only to give an entrance to Denton’s rooms at the side of the house, the rest of the lower storey being rented to a draper, as it had been when he had bought the place. Denton had put a carpet and a settee down there to no avail; a marine painting on the wall hadn’t helped, nor a bit of Scottish genre picked up cheap; the space remained an excuse for the stairway and the door under it to the sergeant’s part of the

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