Under the Gooseberry Bush

Michael Bloor

(first published in Idle Ink, FEBRUARY 6, 2021)

April 8th, 1974. I’m setting this down on paper and placing it in a tin that I’ll be burying under one of the gooseberry bushes. If things don’t work out, I’d like there to be a proper record of what happened…

Strangely, the root cause of the fatality can be traced back to the fact that, back in the 1950s, there were two Rodger Ackroyds in Chapel Street Primary School. There was me, generally known as ‘Rodge.’ And there was him, generally known as ‘Big Ackie,’ a nasty piece of work, even when he was an eight year-old. Ackroyd isn’t an uncommon a name in the town – I remember another Rodger Ackroyd used to be the Clydesdale Bank manager in Sadlergate. But the teachers used to make lame, irritating jokes about us, and I expect that’s why Big Ackie took a particular dislike to me. All kids hate being singled (doubled in this case) out for attention, and Ackie mysteriously decided it was all my fault.

His dislike continued even after I’d passed the exams to go on to the Academy and he’d begun his irregular attendance at the High School. But things got a lot worse when we were seventeen and both going out with Fiona MacTaggart. Him and his cousin, Shuggie, beat the crap out of me in the Gents toilet at the Mecca Ballroom. But I dare say I’d have lost out in the Fiona stakes, even without the broken nose: I was still at school with only the proceedings from a paper-round to pay my way in the world, whereas Big Ackie was working in his dad’s scrap metal business and driving around in a clapped-out Ford Cortina. Just before I went away to Uni, I heard he’d got Fiona pregnant and they’d got married. Apparently, Fiona’s mum sobbed through the whole celebration.

Anyway, ten years passed by. I was back and teaching at the Academy, living in my parents’ house (both my mum and my dad having died in the interim). I’d see Ackie around the town occasionally – it’s not that big a place – but we never spoke. Then, one Sunday night there he was, at my front door:

‘Hiya Rodge. Can I come in?’ A rhetorical question.

Moments later, we were both sitting at my kitchen table with a couple of cans. Ackie didn’t look too good: still big, but flabby; grey pallor; thinning red hair. I learned later that he’d damaged his back pushing wrecked cars around the scrapyard, and that there was a court case coming up about a load of copper wire. Ackie finished pouring his can into a pint glass:

‘Got a proposition for ye, Rodge. Strange: us having the same name. It’s a sort of bond between us, d’ye no’ think?’

The stress he put on the word ‘bond,’ not a word in Ackie’s normal vocabulary except in relation to bail procedures, made me realise that this was a rehearsed speech. He gave me his good news first: he’d won the pools – eight draws when there were only nine on the whole coupon – an estimated £300,000. I tried to look pleased for him, but Ackie shook his head and wiped the beer-foam from his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘The thing is: me and Fiona are separated. She and little Kelly-Anne are back at her mum’s. We’ll be divorced eventually. An’ I wanna fresh start. I’ve met a lady in Glasgow who thinks like I do: I’m sick of the scrapyard and she’s sick of hostessing in that club. We both fancy Spain. I’ve got my eye on a bar-restaurant business there.’

‘Spain eh? Sounds good to me, Ackie. What’s the problem?’

‘The problem, Rodge, is Fiona. I need that £300,000. I don’t need Fiona taking a huge chunk of it in the divorce settlement.’

Outwardly smiling, my guts were starting to churn. Surely Ackie hadn’t forgotten that I used to be sweet on Fiona (truth to tell, I was still sweet on her)? But, like a Panzer tank in a war movie, Ackie moved relentlessly onwards, oblivious of any collateral damage. ‘So here’s the plan, Rodge. I collect the cheque from the pools company. An’ then…’ Ackie treated me to a dramatic pause. ‘An’ then, I pass it onto YOU.’

‘Eh?’

‘The cheque’s made out to “Rodger Ackroyd”. Ye deposit it in yerr “Rodger Ackroyd” bank account. An’ once the divorce is definitely settled, ye pay me back. Less a ten percent commission. Geddit?’

A tricky business. I didn’t know too much about the criminal law, but I was pretty certain that he was proposing that I be a partner in some kind of fraud – something that would certainly end my so-called career in teaching if it came to court. What’s more (and this really stuck in my craw) Ackie was proposing that we defraud Fiona – my Fiona, my teenage sweetheart. But I also knew that it was most unwise to cross Big Ackie, a man of uncertain temper… and also Shuggie’s cousin.

Weakly, I temporised: ‘Isn’t it going to look a bit suspicious? I deposit a cheque for £300,000 into an account with current assets of seventeen quid. Then a few weeks later, I write another cheque to pay Rodger Ackroyd £270,000…’

‘Nah. Keep it simple, Rodge. Tell ‘em ye won the football pools, but ye ticked the ‘no publicity’ box – ye’ll be very upset if any news leaks out via the bank. And once my divorce is settled, ye tell ‘em ye’re buying a holiday home in Spain and ye’re transferring some of yerr assets to yerr new ‘Rodger Ackroyd’ account in yerr new Spanish bank.’

It was a simpler world in those days – no money-laundering regulations for a start – and, despite myself, I was impressed: ‘You’ve certainly planned this one, Ackie.’

‘Nae me, Sunshine – Sean Bryce, the scrapyard accountant.’

I knew Sean Bryce, a weasel-faced old drunk, who could always be found in the bar of the Fife Arms Hotel. He wasn’t a qualified accountant, but he was reputed to know a lot about creative book-keeping.

By the time we’d each drained a second can, I’d capitulated. About to leave, Ackie lingered at the front door, leant towards me, and I felt his dog’s breath on my face: ‘Didna mess wi’ me Rodge. Ye’ll no’ be the winner. An’ it’s no’ easy, picking up yerr broken teeth wi’ a broken arm.’

The following day, I did something I’d never done before: I bunked off work – called in and claimed a sickie. I had to think, but I couldn’t stay in the house. At the back of my street is a patch of ground owned by the Allotment Society; my dad had been a member and I’d inherited his plot, right by the gate. That morning I had the allotments all to myself. I’ve always found the allotments a peaceful place, ever since I was a child, helping my dad and my grandad. It was a warm day of early April. A robin perched on the loganberry wires, watching me intently as I dug out the pea trench, turning over the lovely, friable loam that only a fortnight ago had been a viscous, inert slab of dirt –the annual miracle of Spring. As I turned the soil, I pondered Ackie’s proposition.

The robin suddenly darted down to my feet, hopped briskly a few inches, and seized a worm. I knew I couldn’t let Ackie cheat Fiona. By the time I’d manured and limed the pea trench, I’d got the makings of a plan. I shouldered the spade, nipped home, and phoned Fiona’s mum’s house.

When Fiona came to the phone I could hear the surprise in her voice. I dispensed with the embarrassing small talk and told her that there was something important I needed to tell her, but it was complicated – could I come round and see her that night? She hesitated but then she answered quietly: ‘Come round after nine – I’ll have got Kelly-Anne off to bed by then. My mum’ll be pleased to see you: she always liked you.’

When I rang the bell that evening, Mrs MacTaggart was indeed pleased to see me, transparently impressed that I was now an English teacher at the Academy. ‘With his own home,’ as she pointed out to Fiona as an after-thought. I could see Fiona was rather embarrassed. And her situation was made worse when Kelly-Anne (apparently awakened by my knock) came back downstairs in her pyjamas and wanted to know why her mother was wearing make-up. Fiona’s mum, surprisingly, saved the situation by saying that she’d see to Kelly-Anne, and why didn’t Fiona and I go out for a drink? Kelly-Anne was still shouting questions as we shut the front door. We looked at each other and started to laugh; it seemed natural to take Fiona’s hand as we sauntered down the road.

However, once I’d carried our drinks over to a window-seat in the King of Prussia, we had serious stuff to discuss. I had to admire the level-headed way that Fiona took the news of Ackie’s pools win and his forthcoming flight to Spain. Her plan was just to tell all to the divorce court. But I convinced her that retribution would certainly be exacted by Ackie and his friends and relations, most notably cousin Shuggie, just back from a stretch in Barlinnie after fire-bombing a rival scrapyard. She and I both remembered my Mecca-ballroom broken nose. My suggestion was that she could simply be at the marital home to intercept the post and ‘discover’ the pools cheque, as if by accident. Then it could indeed be a matter for her lawyer and the divorce court. I explained that Ackie was expecting it to arrive by registered post tomorrow (Tuesday) morning.

Fiona stared into her gin and tonic: ‘That could work, Rodge. I need to go round to the house anyway to collect the new child benefit book. The postie would let me sign for the registered letter.’

‘Yep. Best to take your mum with you – that way Ackie’s less likely to make a scene. And I’ll trail the postie, so that I can let you know when he’s nearing your house.’

‘Good idea. Me and Mum’ll be in the newsagent’s on Alma Terrace.’

‘Fine. Once I’ve alerted you that the postie’s on his way, I’ll loiter in the newsagent’s too.’

Fiona smiled a warm smile, her brown eyes shining. There was a long pause, then she touched my hand: ‘You’ll be the poorer by £30,000.’

I shrugged and smiled in return: ‘Is your mum up to playing her part, do you think?’ Fiona was sure that her mum (no fan of Ackie) would be fine. But Mrs MacTaggart did indeed prove to be the weak link in the conspiracy…

On the Tuesday morning, a day of wind and intermittent rain, I picked up the postie’s trail at the end of Balaclava Road. I hurried into the newsagent’s to inform Fiona and her mum – the cue for them to walk around the corner to the new bungalows in Reapers Rise and linger naturalistically in Ackie’s neglected front garden for the interception.

Fiona said that the postie duly arrived and of course recognised her as Mrs Ackroyd. She then signed for the registered letter, while an unsuspecting Ackie sat in the back kitchen waiting in vain for the postie to ring the bell.

So far so good, but the next scene called for some dramatic talent from Fiona and her mum. Fiona let herself and her mum in the front door with her key. She chucked the registered letter on the hall table while she put the door key back in her bag. Hearing the noise, Ackie emerged from the kitchen in time to see the precious pools envelope dropped onto the hall-table with the old letters, circulars and free newspapers.

Fiona glanced at him: ‘Oh it’s you. I thought you’d be at the scrapyard. I’m here for the child benefit book.’ She quickly picked up the pile from the hall-table and began to sort out the letters from the dross. Having done so, she started to slit open the envelopes with the paper knife on the hall-table. Ackie was momentarily non-plussed, but as Fiona started to slit open the pools envelope, he took a quick step forward: ‘Here, that’s mine!’

Nervous and disconcerted by Ackie’s sudden movement, Mrs MacTaggart stepped in front of him and blurted out, ‘No it isnae, ye dirty bugger!’ (Fiona had unwisely told her mum the unexpurgated version, including the bit about the Glasgow club hostess).

Ackie’s suspicions were definitely aroused. He brushed Fiona’s mum aside and made a lunge for the pools letter. There was a tussle between Ackie and Fiona, gamely joined by Fiona’s mum. All three over-balanced, crashed into the hall-table and fell to the floor. Fiona was up first and immediately saw the paper knife sticking out of Ackie’s twitching chest. She showed great coolness: she picked up her hyper-ventilating mum and parked her in the kitchen. She then walked swiftly down Reapers Rise and summoned me from the newsagent’s, without stepping inside (she had blood on her mac). We sped back to Ackie’s.

After that it was plain sailing – gruesome, but quite straightforward. We never considered for a moment calling the police: we couldn’t risk a court-trial, or Shuggie’s revenge. We disposed of Ackie that same evening – the allotment came in handy – and cleaned up the hallway.

All in all, Ackie’s plan seemed the best available. I deposited the cheque in my account and three days later we headed off to Spain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: