A Museum of Knives – A short story by Simon Gompertz

Former BBC journalist Simon Gompertz is raising money for the Trussell Trust, who support food banks in Britain, by donating the proceeds from his book of short stories Limb of Satan. He has permitted The Chiswick Calendar to serialise the stories, which are all set in Chiswick during the lockdowns of 2020 – 21 and delve into odd and unusual happenings:

“a mixture of the strange and the weirdly normal, with happenings you wouldn’t expect on your doorstep, intriguing mysteries, chancers who’ve taken advantage of the virus and good people caught up in the tension and fear” says Simon.

if you enjoy A Museum of Knives, please make a contribution to the Trussell Trust. If you would like to read the rest of the stories in Limb of Satan, you will find them here:

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A Museum of Knives

by Simon Gompertz

THE BLADE MADE A METALLIC SCRAPING NOISE as Davie pulled it out of the sheath, the same as you would get from a single stroke over a whetstone. The light played over the steel. Then there was the smell of the axle grease smeared over for protection.

“It’s a verijero, usually about this size, the cutting edge about fifteen centimetres or so. A gaucho would use it to slice ropes and leather, chop up the meat, to shave or trim his beard. He couldn’t live without it. He would die without his knives.”

Davie put it back in and handed the knife to Tanveet. He watched her grasp the handle and run her thumb up and down the sheath, feeling the grooves. The decoration was of dull silver, low grade, with floral patterns beaten in and small golden fans in the middle of each section of the design.

The point was rounded off with a flower which had tendrils going up the side of the sheath and on one side, up near the wide end of the blade, there was a decorated clip sticking out, to help secure the knife to a belt or the inside of a boot. It had the look of a working tool trying to be something refined.

“He would be killing or watching something being killed pretty much every day. He was living from the land or working for someone who needed cattle or sheep slaughtering. He would be a fighter, as well.”

Davie stepped across the room towards a display of longer knives hanging from a wooden bar on the wall. They were like little swords: some were sharpened on both sides, others just on one side of the blade. A few had curved or S-shaped cross-guards between the hilt and the blade, to protect the holder, in a fight, against another weapon sliding up and cutting the hand.

“This is a facón. Sharp on one side only and with a cross-guard for your hand. Look at the blade: it’s about a foot and a half long. The groove all the way down is to save steel and make it lighter. It’s called a fuller. They made knives like these by chopping down old swords or bayonets, then a local blacksmith would build the hilt. Cheap to put together but a vicious weapon.”

He placed the facón back on the wall mount and picked out another long knife, deliberately swinging it too close to Tanveet before grabbing the blade in his other hand, squeezing his fingers around it and pursing his lips as if to emphasise how sharp it might have been.

“Daga. Same as dagger in English. It is double-edged, with no cross-guard. Sleeker. Might have been made from grinding down a metal file. Imagine someone flashing this at you.

“The gaucho would carry one of these longer knives slung over his shoulder or shoved sideways into the back of his huge belt, so it was easy to grab by reaching round his flank, and he would have the verijero tucked in at the front. That’s how the verijero got its name: it means near the groin.”

“Put it back, please.”

Davie ignored Tanveet’s request. He glanced up at her as if she was interrupting a show.

“I expect you’re wondering how they were used. Imagine one gaucho lassoing a steer by its horns, and another veering behind the animal, pulling out his facón or daga and slashing the rear legs so it goes down, then running round the front and plunging the knife into its throat. Gory, yeah? It was how they lived.”

He rehearsed the kill, waving the daga as if practising a backhand and pushing it forwards like he was poking it into a hole. Tanveet stepped back a couple of paces.

“Davie, who do you think is after your knives right now?”

“Well, they’re fearsome weapons, aren’t they? As effective as they were two centuries ago. You know, they never carried guns, preferred their knives and didn’t have the money to buy guns and ammo, anyway.

“The knives were working tools but they also used them to fight. A gaucho might have been weeks out on the pampa, on his own, then he arrives at a shop, which would have been little more than a homestead with some stores, essential stuff and maybe some of the luxuries he craved: spices like cumin and cinnamon.

“They were dotted around the countryside, huge distances apart, and there would be drink, and women, and arguments, so there were duels, which was part of their way of life. You have these grizzled men standing off against each other, holding up a poncho on the left arm, as a shield, wielding one of these long knives in the other.”

“Doesn’t sound much like Putney.”

“So you say, so you say. But the point is that people still want the knives. They still prefer the knife to the gun. And they still want to protect themselves and their freedom.”

Davie had transported himself to an in-between world. He saw Tanveet’s eyebrows go up and he heard her asking what the hell all this had to do with freedom. He still had the daga in his hand and was gazing at the blade, enjoying the glow.

“The thing is they were properly free. A gaucho could spend weeks out on the plains, on his own, free as a wild bird. He might be twenty or thirty miles from the nearest person or farm. He didn’t work for anyone. No one told him what to do and, if they tried to, they would have to answer for it. I know some characters today want knives to cause trouble but it’s not just them.

“The time is coming, and it’s already starting, when a lot more of us are going to be looking for ways to protect ourselves and make our mark. It’s because our freedoms are being taken away. Look at all the rules: the masks, the jabs, where we can go, what we can do.

“People are saying it has to be stopped or it will go on and on. And some of them want protection and some of them want a way of somehow making a stand.”

This was how Davie remembered the conversation, after he had seen Tanveet out of the museum. He had said more than he should have done, maybe, but the words came from a place deep in his backbone and saying them did not change the situation, as far as he could see.

If folk did not recognise how the world had morphed then they had to be told and, if they chose not to hear, they would have to be shown.

Image above: Gaucho knife

Detective Inspector Tanveet Kaur stood facing the terraced house off Putney High Street, wondering why this case had come her way. From a time-waster, no doubt. Shortage of staff, she guessed, with police off sick or self-isolating. Life had become strange.

First, the empty streets, the only people venturing out looking scared and hiding behind their masks. Then, the protests, the absurdity of police having to squash up against people who did not care about keeping a safe distance. Now, the talk was about getting back to normal, except that you could never go back, not really.

From the outside the place looked tidy enough. There was nothing remarkable apart from a curved cut in the front door. It was filled in with earth, making it look like a scar. She rang the bell.

“You’re the police?”

“Yes, Inspector Kaur, South-West CID. David Nairn?”

“Yes. Davie. I didn’t expect…”

“Didn’t expect what? Someone like me? Look, Sir, you made a call, something about knives missing. That’s a concern for us. Could be nothing, but could be a link with serious crime.”

“Yeah, right. You don’t look like police, that’s all.”

“Really? I mean, if it’s just the clothes, we don’t wear uniform unless there’s a reason.” Tanveet had been holding up her ID all this time.

“You’d better come in. So what are you allowed to wear?”

“Business-type clothes, just normal.”

“Jewellery, tattoos?”

“They’re not my thing, to be honest.”

She wasn’t looking at Davie. She was looking around the front room. It was covered with knives, as if knives were a form of decoration. The front door opened directly into the space, which was about four metres by five with a rough wooden dining table in the middle. Along the short wall, on the left as she entered, she recognised a couple of racks of old Japanese kitchen knives and a curved Samurai sword.

On the right by the door were several daggers with wavy blades. They looked South-East Asian: Punyal was the word which dropped into her mind. But the rest of the room was devoted to knives, short and long, from South America, gaucho knives she guessed immediately, because Davie had hung a couple of old photographs of gauchos amongst them.

One showed and elderly man leaning against a horse, wearing a fat belt adorned with stitched-in coins, the belt clasped around a light blanket which he was wearing over his legs instead of chaps.

Another had a couple of men squaring up to each other, long knives in one hand, folded ponchos held up in the other. Set into the far wall, the one adjoining the neighbouring house, was a Victorian fireplace topped by a thick wooden mantelpiece. There was a long piece of card laid along the mantelpiece on which was written “El Museo del Cuchillo” in bold, black letters.

How did she not know about this place? A museum of knives.

“I’ve not seen anything about your museum. Do you have visitors?”

“I keep it low key. No signs. The name in Spanish. I put it on social media and you can message me and book a visit, for a fee. I guess you people don’t pick up on that. I’m not selling them, anyway.”

“So what happened?”

“The knives which went missing? I had a group come in, no idea who they were. They just rang on the door but said they had seen the museum online and could they have a look around. I said OK, didn’t think about being able to track them. To keep it short, they had a poke about, I gave them the spiel, and they asked for some water, which I went into the kitchen to pour out.

“Before I knew it they had left. It was only afterwards that I spotted some gaps in the display. Three of the longer gaucho knives had gone and three of the smaller ones.”

“Can you remember anything about them?”

“The people? Not much. All men. A couple with beards. It was hard to tell because of the masks. Those masks are a good way of disguising yourself. Tats on the arms but nothing special that I remember: crosses, animals, that sort of thing.”

He was looking away from Tanveet. There was something shifty about him. She wondered if he was telling her everything. Probably not. On the other hand, he had called the police, not the other way round. Why would he do that if he had something to hide? She asked him what he thought the thieves wanted the knives for.

“Well, your people like to show off their knives, don’t they?”

“My people?”

“It’s a status thing. I mean the Sikh knife, the Kirpan. It’s the same: status and defending yourself, putting the frighteners on someone if you need to.”

“Look, Davie, my people are the people of South West London and that’s why I’m here, looking at the hundreds of blades which you have on display, which I’m surprised we haven’t inspected before, very closely.

“I’m worried about anything which looks like a sword or a dagger, which members of the public might get their hands on. That’s exactly what you’re telling me has happened, isn’t it?”

“It is. It is. But this is a museum, Inspector, not a shop. The knives are not for sale, as I said, and most of them are antiques.”

It was at this point that Davie grabbed the verijero and started explaining what the different knives were and how the gauchos used them, ending in his declaration about freedom, making a stand and, what alarmed Tanveet, making his mark.

“But there was no one else about,’ she said, “That’s the difference.”

“There’s no difference. Freedom is the same the world over.”

“No, it’s not. Out on the pampa, centuries ago, it didn’t matter what knives you carried or what you got up to with them, as long as you were miles from anywhere. You were free to do whatever.

“And if your gaucho did turn up at some remote shop or even in a village, there were probably no police to help the people he might wave his weapon at. I mean, once there are other people all around, like here, now, those people have their freedom as well, which needs to be protected: freedom from being abused, or bullied, or knifed and killed, for instance.”

“Ah. That is where you are wrong, about the gaucho, anyway. It’s all to do with the code you follow and, for the gaucho, killing was a disgrace. He would be shunned. When they fought, the aim was to get past the opponent’s defences and slash the face, to leave a visible scar, no more than that, so that everyone could see who was the one to be respected and honoured.

“To be honest, it was a way of building respect for freedom across the community. Everyone benefited. The scar was a sign, a reminder.”

Image above: Gaucho knife

Tanveet stepped away from the front door and across the small garden to the road. She had taken a precise description of each of the stolen items and with that she felt she had gone as far she could with Davie. If she returned it would be to go through all his papers and stock, with another officer because she thought he might become agitated.

She might bring the council in as well, to check whether he needed a licence and whether Putney’s little-known Museo del Cuchillo deserved to stay open.

Something bothered her, though, about his story, about the theft. She looked back at the door and the scar across the wood. Davie talked about making a stand. He thought scars could be a benefit for the community.

He wanted her, the police, to know that knives had gone missing, that someone else had some of his knives and might use them, so they might turn up elsewhere, or be dropped. Maybe he was being public-spirited. Or maybe not. Maybe he wanted to make sure that if the knives were used, he was ruled out as a suspect.

She stopped out in the road opposite the house and tried to think it through again. What had she seen? Knives, a man with a tale about being robbed, but no inkling, supposedly, of who the perpetrators were, a room set up as a museum. She had not thought to look anywhere else in the house. Damn. She walked back.

“Hi, Davie, so sorry. I forgot something.”

“What was that?” He had opened the door only enough to look out.

“The kitchen. You never showed me the kitchen. I’d like to have a look.”

She had been in this situation before, knowing that it was wrong to push her way into a home when the person inside was reluctant to let her in. She put her hand against the door and started to move towards the opening.

She made it look as if allowing her to enter was the obvious thing to do and Davie complied, pulling the door away and giving her space to come in. Tanveet went straight through the front room and into the kitchen.

She sensed the man following behind. She saw two drawers between the sink and the cooker. She opened one: wooden spoons, spatulas. Not that one. She pushed it shut and pulled the other drawer. Yes, sharps. Not just kitchen stuff, though. Lying in the jumble of scissors and paring knives she saw blades the size of short swords and some decorated gold and silver sheaths.

She knew now that they were facóns, dagas and verijeros. Six of them. They looked like the same ones he had described.

“Who were you going to scar with these?”

He was close. His hand came around and reached for one of the knives.

“Let’s see,” he said.

Tanveet slammed the drawer shut as hard as she could. The man gasped as his fingers were crushed. With her other hand she pulled out a pair of handcuffs from her jacket pocket, hooking his trapped wrist with one end and pushing in the ratchet half-way.

She turned to face him. His mouth was open. She let go of the drawer and went on twisting in a full circle, at the same time pulling his hand across. Then she fastened the other cuff around the front bar of the grill.

Before he had a chance to make his move, Davie had been locked to his cooker. No knife, no poncho, no scar.

Simon Gompertz, author of A Museum of Knives, was a news correspondent for the BBC for many years, working in the Business unit and specialising on personal finance. He has won a series of prestigious awards for his work. He lives in Chiswick. This is his first book of short stories.

Read more on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Ruth Cadbury MP links funding cuts to knife crime

See also: Appeal for information after 16 year old stabbed in Chiswick

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