It was one of those fresh, newly washed sort of mornings. The storm from last night had almost, but not quite, blown itself out, leaving behind leaf strewn lawns and clear blue skies over which tiny wisps of cloud played tag.
The milkman could hear the dog barking again as he turned into the end of the street. It always seemed to be complaining about something. He suspected it didn’t get enough exercise which was odd as the house was surrounded on two sides by forest and the road turned from tarmacked to gravel and headed off into the depths just outside.
People were just beginning to wake. Mr Jones from number 9 nodded at Keith as he brushed the leaves and twigs from his car. Mrs Watson – Judith – opened the door just before Keith got there and asked him for an extra pint.
“Bad storm last night.” he commented as he returned with the milk.
“Yes it was” she replied “we lost some tiles off the back. I’m hoping it doesn’t rain before we can get someone out. And that bloody dog just would not shut up!”
“Number 24′s dog? Hate the little sod. He’s always under my feet. It’s a wonder I haven’t dropped a bottle on his head.”
“hah I’d probably have dropped one on purpose after the fuss he was making last night. Kept the whole street awake I shouldn’t wonder.” she pulled her cardigan closer and shook herself “Anyway shouldn’t stand here yakking away to you all morning. Got jobs to do and that milk won’t deliver itself!”
“No that it won’t” agreed Keith “see you tomorrow then.”
He walked back to his float and drove it a few yards down the road. He made his deliveries to numbers 23 and 25 then crossed the road to 18. He could hear raised voices coming from somewhere. It never ceased to amaze him how invisible the “regulars” were. People only noticed the milkman, paper boy or postie when they weren’t there. Being invisible had its perks – on more than one occasion Keith had been witness to something the participants should have kept private.
Keith always made a point of knocking on Janet at number 18. Round about last Christmas time she’d had a nasty fall getting out of the bath and it had been Keith, spotting that yesterday’s milk was still on the step, that had raised the alarm. He’d visited her in hospital and they had become friends.
“Morning Keith” Janet Greene smiled as she opened the door “and how are you today?”
“Oh I’m grand” he replied “and yourself? You’re looking well. The storm didn’t keep you awake then?”
Janet laughed “I’m half deaf. I could sleep through a tornado! And how’s your Kitty getting on at university? Has she found a flat for next year then?”
“Kathy is fine.” replied Keith. Janet was always getting names wrong and it had become an in-joke between them that she had never once got his eldest’s name correct. “She’s off to look at a few this week. She says they are all rubbish and I told her I thought all student digs were rubbish but she thinks that’s not the case anymore. And they’re not called digs either!”
“She sounds like she knows her mind then! And your lovely Susan? Is she well?”
“Sarah is very well too. She’s baking today so I’ll have cake tomorrow. She knows how partial you are to a bit of fruit cake.
“Did your nephew ever come round?” Keith continued. He personally thought most of Janet’s should do more to keep an eye on her but he knew she would never leave the village willingly and they had their own lives to lead in the relative metropolis that was Kedslie.
“Aye he did. He’s a good lad really. Fixed the tap and that door handle. Did I tell you about the door handle. It was only last week. I was in the kitchen and for some reason – I don’t know – I shut the door. And when I came to open it again the whole thing came off in my hand! The rod bit in the middle hadn’t come out so I nipped it with the serving tongs and escaped!” Janet chuckled at her own ingenuity. “Anyway I mustn’t keep you.”
“Yes I’d better get on” Keith agreed. “and have you got your phone now?”
“Ach no I haven’t.” she said patting her pockets and fumbling round her neck. She turned and shuffled inside, returning a few moments later with a large button mobile attached to a beaded necklace. “Lucy sent me this so I can keep my phone handy. Isn’t it pretty?” Lucy – the one name she never got wrong – was her only daughter and lived in London. It was Lucy that dropped everything last year and camped out in the house visiting her mother as often as the hospital allowed. The local family went once when the hospital called and that had been that. Lucy had bought the phone after that so her mother could summon help if she ever needed to again.
“That’s a lovely idea. Now don’t you forget to wear it. I’d better get on anyhow. See you tomorrow.”
Keith went back to move the float down to the bottom of the road. Only 24 still took milk from him. Number 22 was rowing again. They’d been married 20 years and argued for most of it.
Somehow they had managed to bring up four well mannered children. One had been in the same year as Kathy at high school.
Keith stopped and stared at number 24. No matter how long the house stood there it was never going to blend in. The original houses on the road were farm workers cottages – originally six tiny terraced houses now knocked through to make two semi’s. The council had added twenty-one more houses in the form of seven blocks of three in a post-war attempt to improve the lot of the slum dwellers by scattering them across the county. Number 24 had been tacked on in the late sixties on a vacant plot of land. Rumour had it that the architect had committed suicide when he saw the finished house but the truth was that it had been designed and built by Mr Munroe who fancied himself as the new Frank Lloyd Wright. The result was a bungalow that looked like the bastard off-spring of a warehouse and a cucumber frame. It was neither pretty nor functional, must cost a fortune to heat and roast in summer.
Mr Munroe had died in the early eighties and only his widow lived in the house now. With that dog. Banjo was well-known and well-disliked. He was a mongrel. He clearly had Jack Russell in his lineage and probably some spaniel. He barked at everything from the postman to his own shadow. For a long time he would attempt to mate with anything he could mount although after he got out and sired a litter with James White’s pedigree poodle Mrs Munroe had been persuaded to take him to the vets and he had calmed down slightly. Unfortunately no one had succeeded in persuading her to take him to obedience classes and it was a common sight to see Banjo galloping down the road dragging Mrs Munroe rather like a speed boat towing a water skier. She also refused to install a proper fence claiming that it would ruin the intended design of the house and gardens which meant it was very easy for Banjo to escape and terrorise the local wildlife and livestock. Only last week he had been seen in Duncan’s fields chasing rabbits.
It sounded like he was round the back of the house. There was a kennel there and Keith hoped that he was chained up.
He checked his book. Mrs Munroe had a complicated pattern of milk deliveries that altered from week to week so Keith had to always check what was required. Just one pint of semi-skimmed today.
Keith climbed down, selected a bottle and walked down the path. The path annoyed him too. The gateway in the ridiculous dwarf hedge was opposite the door but the path curved round in an arc then back again to form a sort of S-shape. When he had taken over the round he had just ignored the path and headed straight for the door but Mrs Munroe had told him off for walking on the grass so now he followed its curves to the porch.
Mrs Munroe had one of those terracotta milk coolers. Keith lifted the lid and put the milk inside then straightened up and went back to his float. He was just about to turn round when it hit him. Where were the empties?
Keith checked his records. Over the last three days he had delivered six pints. She must have finished some of it. In fact the last time he could remember her not leaving at least one bottle she had written a note apologizing for breaking it. She had asked for an extra too. She was always fastidious like that. She’d been near to tears one year when it had snowed heavily and she was five pence short because she hadn’t been able to visit the bank.
Keith strode across the lawn and banged on the door. If nothing was wrong that should rouse her he thought. The dog, which had stopped barking to whimper and whine, started up again.
Keith tried the door but it was locked. A quick check under the moveable plant pots failed to turn up a spare key. He tried to look through the windows but they were shrouded in thick muslin.
The house sat in the centre of its plot so he made his way round to the back, peeping through any windows he passed on the way. Round at the back Bingo was sitting in the rear porch behind a dog proof gate. He jumped up glad to see someone then darted through a dog flap in the back door.
Keith considered his options. No way was he small enough to get through the flap. Maybe though he could reach through the flap and get the key. Assuming Mrs Munroe wasn’t paranoid about security. Banjo might not be your usual idea of a guard dog but the idea of anyone getting past him without alerting his owner was quite laughable.
Keith paused in unfastening the gate. As soon as he got within range Banjo was going to bounce. With all that terrier in him he was very good at bouncing. Worse though is what would happen when he got down on his knees to reach through the flap. Then Banjo was going to think he wanted to play and would lick his face and try to play tug-of-war with his coat. The prospect was not appealing.
He made sure the gate was secure and walked few paces from the house.
“Mrs Munroe?” he shouted “It’s Keith. The milkman”
There was no reply. Banjo cocked his head to one side in puzzlement.
There was still no answer. He walked a little further from the house and turned to look at it. The giant picture windows stared back challengingly. Keith tried to stare them down and failed. “Aw fuck it” he muttered and walked back to the gate.
Banjo had stopped barking when he saw his new playmate and he stood expectantly by the gate. Keith stuck a hand through the bars to try and catch hold of Banjo’s collar but the dog skipped away. As soon as Keith started to unhook to gate Banjo ran back. Timing was going to be everything – the last thing he wanted to do was let the dog out.
A small voice at the back of his head was urging him to reconsider. Perhaps she’d just nipped out and would come back and demand to know what the milkman was doing with his hand stuck through the doorflap. Leave it to the professionals the voice said. Call the police and get them to deal with it. But he knew that failure to put the milk bottles out did not constitute enough evidence that a crime or accident had occurred.
No, there was nothing for it, he would have to get inside and bring help.
Suddenly the phone rang. Banjo burst into a frenzy of barking and dashed inside. Keith hesitated. On the one hand this was his chance to get to Banjo’s side of the gate. On the other he didn’t want to be caught if it turned out she had just forgotten and then over-slept. Theanswerphone cut in and Keith took his chance. Quickly he unhooked the gate and slipped into the porch then shut it firmly behind him again. Then he knelt down and put his hand through the flap. He reached up and fumbled around trying to find a key. Nothing. Then he thought that if he put his head through the flap he could see where to aim for. So carefully he pushed through the flap and looked around. Banjo, who had been watching with interest gave an excited bounce and rushed over to lick his face. Keith hurriedly withdrew and stood up but he had found out that there was indeed a key on the other side.
Keith stuck his arm through the flap again and reached up towards the lock. His fingertips brushed the key fob but he couldn’t reach high enough to grip it. He pulled his arm back and looked around. The porch was quite empty; there was a water bowl in the corner and Bingo’s lead hanging on a hook. There was also a dead tomato plant still tied to its cane.
A glimmer of an idea came to Keith and he pulled the cane free of the plant. It was longer than he needed so he stood up, braced it against the ground and snapped it in two. Taking one of the pieces he slid it through the door and waved it from side to side trying to hit the key. After a few passes he managed to get the cane wedged up against the key. Slowly and carefully he wiggled the cane. A couple of times it slipped but eventually Keith managed to hook the cane through the key fob. Next he pushed the cane up to ensure a good hold then slowly he tried to lever the key out of the lock. The key would not budge so he tried shaking the stick.
Banjo took this as an invitation to play, leapt forward and grabbed the cane. He started tugging on it and growling in delight. Keith had great difficulty in holding on to the stick. Suddenly the key came loose and went flying over to the other side of the kitchen. Banjo barked in delight and rushed off to fetch it back. Keith hurriedly removed the stick and shoved it back into the plant.
Banjo stood in the kitchen with the key dangling from his mouth. For some reason it was attached to a boatman’s fob which consisted of a large cork ball on a piece of rope. He’d never had so much fun in his own kitchen now and now his playmate had disappeared. He dropped the fob and sniffed the ground. Then he sniffed at the door frame. He stood thinking for a minute, his tail waving warily then trotted back to the key fob, picked it up in his mouth and ran through the flap.
Keith had been thinking too. He had been just about to put his head through the door to assess the situation when Banjo burst through and startled him
Keith tried to get out of the way, over-balanced and ended up rolling on his side in an ungainly mess. In the confusion his cap fell off and Banjo took his chance. Dropping the key he pounced on the cap, lay down on it and proceeded to chew the brim.
Keith took his opportunity too. Grabbing the key he stood up and dusted himself down then put the key in the door and turned it. The key turned part way and stuck. Puzzled he tried turning it the other way. There was a satisfying clunk as the bolt moved. Cursing that he had simply assumed the door was locked and hadn’t actually tried it he turned the key again to unlock the door, turned the handle and went in.
The house still had its original kitchen and white slab fronted units lined the walls, their edges chipped and the straight lines bent by sagging hinges. Even the cooker looked original, with heat marks round the elements and the dials virtually illegible. The fridge was brand new, presumably its predecessor was less long-lived.
The room was very tidy. Dishes stood to attention on the draining rack. Two empty milk bottles perched on the end of the counter waiting to go outside. A small pan of milk stood on the cooker; a film indicating it had been boiled and allowed to cool down. A bowl of dry dog food had been left on the table. Banjo pricked up his ears and started begging so Keith put it down for him before going into the next room.
The kitchen opened directly off the dining area of the open plan living area. A highly polished white table was surrounded by curvy moulded plastic chairs. Abstract paintings, suggestive of grass and woodland, hung on the walls. A open bookshelf separated the living and dining areas and Keith could see there was no one about. He walked over to the other end of the room and checked behind the angular sofas. Nothing. Everything was as clean and tidy as a magazine spread.
A flight of open tread stairs led up from the centre of the room. Keith was surprised as he had always thought it was a bungalow.
Keith decided to go upstairs first. Off the landing were three doors. The first opened into a bedroom with a pair of neatly made beds. Huge floor to ceiling picture windows took up the wall opposite the door and the wall opposite the beds was lined with fitted cupboards.
Keith tried the next door and found an identikit room. Even the bedspreads were the same. Neither room looked as though anyone actually slept there.
The third door opened onto the bathroom which was equally devoid of clutter. Not even a toothbrush was to be seen. Keith opened the bathroom cabinet to reassure himself that someone lived there. A neatly squeezed tube of toothpaste and toothbrush lay on their own shelf below a bar of soap and a bottle of shampoo.
Keith went back downstairs and tried the remaining door. This was a study. One wall was full of books – the first he’d seen anywhere in the house – arranged by author and subject. The shelves had neat letters and Dewy numbers to aid in finding the correct title.
A desk stood in the middle of the room. A modern electronic typewriter sat under a plastic cover. The desk was aligned so that the user could look out over the garden to the forest beyond.
Keith was just about to give up when a movement outside caught his eye. He walked over to the window to get a better look and then went running back through the house.