The Nice Ones – 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 The Nice Ones, 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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The Nice Ones

By Simon Gompertz

I WASN’T TO KNOW WHEN I FOUND OLD ALF sitting outside his wooden allotment shed, delving into some stew with a big wooden spoon, the juice dribbling down his cheek and a sweet, herby smell wafting over, that he would introduce me to the art of catching and cooking London game.

In all honesty I was just hoping to borrow his garden fork, my own having split where the shaft joins to the head. So, nor did I expect, as I picked my way past his rhubarb, his asparagus bed and around his runner beans, that he would draw me into the mystery of who killed Mopey Dick.

Alf had set up a cooking table using an upturned tea chest and on top of it stood a rusty, blue gas burner, the sort you would take on a camping trip, although this one you would surely leave behind on the grounds of its suspect appearance.

He had built a structure of battered biscuit tins around the burner and balanced a wire rack on top to support a pan over the flames. This was his kitchen and his larder was all around: greens and potatoes, carrots and parsnips, herbs and fruit. He had parsley, thyme and rosemary and, in a section he had netted at the end of the patch, there were raspberry canes, and gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes.

“Come over and have a taste, Mr Fred,” he said, beckoning with his eating arm and spraying drops of gravy on the ground.

“What have you got?”

“Squirrel stew, the best you’ll ever try.”

“That won’t be hard, given I never ate such a thing before.”

My chief worry was not the thought of the squirrel itself, being well aware that some people viewed it as a delicacy. No, it was that there only seemed to be Alf’s greasy and unwashed wooden spoon to carry a sample of the stew over and into my mouth. He was holding it out to me, weighed down with pieces of meat and veg which glistened with juices from the pan. Well, he was giving me no choice.

I grabbed the spoon, which was nearly as wide as a trowel, and pulled off a good mouthful to chew. The squirrel was tender in places, though rubbery at the edges.

Maybe it tasted of chicken, if the chicken had been leaping around the trees and chomping nuts and berries. I was thinking about what a squirrel might find round and about, in this case chestnuts, acorns and beech mast, along with mushrooms and fruit, and I expect they had an effect on the flavours I was getting. To help, there was sweetness from the onions he had fried and richness from the butter he had used for the frying.

“It’s good. How do you make it?”

“Not hard. Fry some onions and while they are browning off, put in the pieces of meat and leave them till they’re cooked on the outside. You’ll be putting some salt a pepper if you have them. There’ll be some carrots or some of those sweet parsnips if that’s what you have.

“Then whatever herbs you can snip off and top it up with some water, rainwater’s as good as any, and leave the stew boiling in the pan for an hour. Bingo.”

Alf was eating straight out of the pan. He moved the spoon around, scraping the congealed parts from the sides and mixing them in. I remembered why I had ambled over.

“I was wondering if I could borrow your fork this afternoon, since mine’s broken in half?”

“Take your pick. There are two leaning on the back of the shed. I was just using the bigger one to pick up Mopey Dick and throw him in a pit I dug near the gate. He was shot through the heart.”

“What the old cat?”

“Very same. You could see the blood on his scruffy chest. Air gun pellet. Left on the path by the bins.”

Sodding hell. Who would do that? It sounded vile, pointless. Mopey Dick was a big old Tom whose home was the allotments. He fed on scraps left out by a few of the plot holders and sheltered in various favoured places in and alongside the sheds.

He spent most of his days slung over boxes or walls or in the short grass, padding slowly from one spot to another. Moping around. Hence the name. And he was a big one, a fat and long tabby with a white bib and dirty-white paws. But the main thing in this context was that he never did any harm to a human.

“Can’t think who would want to take down a cat. I’m stumped,” I said.

“He never stole anything we planted, that’s for sure, nor caused any damage that I know of. I’d say there’s more to it than some vengeful vegetable grower. I do have an idea though.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s to do with these here squirrels. They don’t jump into the pot, you know. You have to nab them first and there’s an easy way to do that. You have to shoot ‘em.”

“Oh, right. With an air gun. Not you, surely?”

“Shoot Mopey Dick? ‘Course not. But I’ve got a gun hid in the shed, old Turkish one. Does the job, with lead slugs. And I’m not the only one: that’s the point, Mr Fred.”

I looked around. These allotments could be bristling with weaponry and I never knew. All those days we had come down the Meadows in sunshine or rain, happily digging the silty loam here by the river, or lugging cans from the tap to water everything, or picking and pulling veg on a warm evening, then lying back on the grass with a bottle or a can, enjoying the bird noise and the peace, and had no idea that a neighbour could have pulled out a rifle and started firing off.

Once the shed next door to ours had been blown to smithereens after the owners abandoned their late night barbecue, and the flames revived and spread to a couple of gas canisters, the large sort. Bits of wood landed three or four allotments away. But this was different. This was people deliberately arming themselves.

“How many? Can’t be legal, can it?”

“That’s a moot point. No problem using them on your own land or with permission, and the council can turn a blind eye if you’re careful. But shooting across someone else’s patch when there’s folk around? No way. On top of that, you need to have your gun under control. Needs to be locked up. Mine’s in a locked box, not telling you where exactly. As to the number, it’s not that many. No one near you.”

“I’ve not seen anyone carrying one, full stop.”

“Well, you’re not here when it happens, that’s why: in the early hours when there’s no one else about, save for those who’ve got some business to do. Squirrel hunting, I mean. There’s three I know of, including me. There could be another but I’ve not seen him, only the odd bushy tail left about. I call us the Nice Ones.”

“The Nice Ones. Why?

“Nice one, Cyril…for squirrel, you know. People used to call them that.”

Alf got up to pour some water into his pan. He left it on the ground by the tea chest to soak.

“Tell you what,” he said, “Take the fork and when you bring it back I’ll show you how to get the squirrel ready. I’ve got another lined up.”

Image above: On the allotment; photograph Marianne Mahaffey

*

If you are squeamish you can skip this next bit or, if someone is reading it to you, you can say La La La or look away.

On my return Alf reached into a leather bag and pulled out a squirrel. He had a sharp little knife ready, which he used it to make a cut under the tail, then he eased the skin away from the back for a couple of inches, keeping the tail attached, all while the animal was face-down on the ground. I could see the pink flesh appearing. However, at this point he dropped the knife, stood on the tail, pulled hard on the back legs and the body slid out of its pelt, as if it was coming out of a sock.

Only those back legs were still covered but Alf dealt with them in seconds. Next, he cut along the belly and pulled out the guts. It was a bit like gutting a fish and, as you would with a fish, he plunged the whole thing into a bucket of water to rinse it clean. The speed at which he worked made the process easier to watch. I judged the whole operation had only taken him a couple of minutes.

He took off the head and feet, so what was left looked like something on a butcher’s counter, fleshy and nameless. He worked the knife into the joints and detached the legs, then trimmed the torso into one meaty piece. He chuckled and glanced over.

“This’ll be for you. It’ll make you a fine dinner. Here, I’ll chuck the bits in a bag. Don’t let them hang around. They need cooking.”

“Wow! Thanks.” There was no refusing such an unusual gift, but I was wondering how it would be received at home. Not that we weren’t used to gifts. Our yields were so low and our failures so frequent that we often brought back more free produce from generous allotment holders than we managed to grow ourselves. But a freshly killed and butchered squirrel would be, well, a surprise.

“Alf, before I run this back, what was the idea you had about what happened to Mopey Dick?”

“Ah, well. That would involve me telling you about The Nice Ones, the squirrel hunters. There is me. Not a suspect. There is a down and out called Mall. He’s an ex-para and to be honest he is more into trapping than shooting, one reason why you should watch where you put your fingers and toes if you get close to some of the trees around here.

“In fairness, he only sets his little traps in hidden places or up in the branches. The third man is called Maz. Different proposition, someone you wouldn’t want to see looming out of the mist. He’s tall, well over six foot.

“He wears a brown poacher’s jacket with pockets on the chest and hips, and big boots, along with a camouflaged wool hat which has a peak on the front. I’ve seen him at dawn several times, carrying a solid-looking gun with an expensive scope mounted on it. He doesn’t miss his target. My idea is that Maz shot the cat for some reason.”

“And the fourth Nice One you mentioned?”

“Not much I can say, just that there are a few kills which are difficult to explain. Mall and Maz don’t leave any trace, but these other ones might have been butchered where they were, which would be unusual.”

I wanted to know more. I felt I had been through a kind of initiation, watching Alf prepare the squirrel. I had stepped into the world of the Nice Ones and I wanted to find out which of them fired the fatal pellet, and for what reason. Also, I had a plan.

“How about we confront this Maz and ask him what he knows? I’m not very happy about people shooting randomly around here. I’d like to get to the bottom of it. We could meet here at first light one day and go out and find him.”

“I’m not happy about it either, Mr Fred. Gives us a bad name, and I had to deal with the cat. OK, but we’ll need to be early, meeting here at five-thirty, just before dawn, and it’ll have to be Monday. That’s when Maz comes down to the river. It’s when he thinks he’ll have the place to himself.”

Image above: Early morning at the allotment; photograph Roz Wallis

*

The steel padlock sparkled in the beam from my head torch. Everything else around the allotment gates was black and grey. I could see stars in patches, split up by dark regions of cloud. As I looked down again and turned the key, I thought that Alf might have left the chain unlocked for me, but he hadn’t. Following the rules, I supposed.

I turned off the path and stepped along the narrow band between two plots, trying not to trip. Coming up behind his shed I could hear the quiet roar of a gas burner and the clink of a kettle. He was brewing up.

“Morning.”

“Morning, Mr Fred, you gave me a start.”

“Bit early. Quicker than I expected on the bike.”

There was a battery lamp hanging from a hook inside the shed door. It created a bubble of light in front where Alf was filling two mugs with boiling water, and it lit up the inside making it look snug and liveable in.

Now I understood what he had been doing. Along the back of the little room there was a camp bed, of the old army type which has an X of wood at each end, holding two long wooden bars which have thick green canvas stretched between them. On top was a thin mattress, a pillow and an old tartan rug. He had slept here with the owls, the foxes and the rats.

Alf was one of the overnighters, one of many more since the COVID lockdowns. People were whiling away their days by planting, weeding, watering and fixing things. It was better than sitting in a flat, counting the minutes and hours. When the time came to head home, some of them said ‘Why bother?’ They stayed.

It was as if they were in a cabin in the woods and fields. Once the walkers had gone off, the Meadows went back to the quiet of previous centuries, save for the occasional siren wailing in the distance. The country moved in on the city.

More birds appeared, and at dusk bats swooped down, hedgehogs rustled through the leaves, deer found a gap in the fence and helped themselves to the veg. The in-between land, from the houses and the playing fields down to the scrubby riverbank, along with the roads around it, was empty and silent. I wondered if Alf had made a habit of overnighting and could not shake it off.

“Had a good night, then?”

“Apart from Mr Fox sticking his nose through the door. Left it a few inches open on the chain. Must have still been a whiff of squirrel around. Then he knocked me bucket over.”

“Looks comfy, though.”

“It’s good enough. I’ll sleep a couple of hours then go out and sit for bit, looking at the night, listening to what’s happening, then go back in for some extra kip. Before you know it, the chirping starts off again.”

We walked across the playing fields towards the fringe of trees by the Thames. Dull forms appeared: woods, the café roof, some climbing frames. The sky was luminous grey, lightening above the river. Where the light was coming, some strips of cloud stood out in lines of charcoal and ash.

There was an area which had been planted with fruit trees and left to go a little wild and encroach on a grassy section which went down to the tow path. We stood on the grass and watched the red rim of the sun appear over the far bank.

It started as a fire behind the trees, with flames seeming to leap through the branches and to scorch the undersides of the charcoal clouds. As the full sun rose, like a burning hole in the lower sky, I noticed a man silhouetted in front, striding along the path. He turned in our direction and I could see that his outline was broken by the stock of a rifle on one side and the barrel sticking out on the other.

“Maz,” Alf called out, so Maz knew who was watching him. He marched over to us and we exchanged good mornings. Maz moved his rifle to his shoulder, hanging it by the strap.

“What’s brought you out?”

“Matter of a cat.”

“Oh,” said Maz. It was more of a grunt.

Rather than add to the conversation he made off towards an abandoned road we called the Avenue which had been, at one time, the main route down to a bandstand on the riverbank. Taking it in the opposite direction brought you back to the allotments. The Avenue was lined with sycamores and lime trees, along with odd oak and beech, and was rich in squirrels.

We followed behind. The daylight was pressing down through the tree cover, but I struggled to see a great deal close to the ground. Maz stopped beside a thick tree and reached into the hip pocket of his jacket, which was easily big enough to hold a hardback book.

He had titbits of some sort in his hand and he placed them on a raised root, then backed off about fifteen metres. We were lurking even further away.

“Bait,” Alf said, “Peanuts, seeds, corn: that’s what I would use.”

Maz had found a spot on the far side of a stump and was down on his knees setting up his rifle. He had rolled up his jacket and was using it as a rest for the front end of the stock. He leaned on the stump and we all waited.

Within a minute, two fat squirrels hopped down obligingly from the upper branches, racing each other to the root. It was all too easy, but it was September. They were in the mood.

Everything seemed to go quiet. The squirrels each picked up something to eat and sat on their haunches turning over the food with their tiny paws. There was a soft sound like a firework rocket going off in the distance. Pooff. One of them dropped as if it had fainted. The other didn’t flinch. It looked up, then grabbed a second morsel and sauntered off.

I thought we were done, but Maz stayed where he was and Alf touched my sleeve to hold me back. Already, there was another squirrel on the scene. I couldn’t tell whether it was a third or the survivor of the first pair coming back for afters. Whichever, it suffered the same fate. Maz walked over, picked up the two dead squirrels and brought them over to us.

Of course, he had known exactly where we were standing. Each animal had a wound just behind the eye.

“I wanted you to see,” he said, “I hit the mark both times. It is better for the squirrel but also I would like you to know my accuracy is first class.”

“Those are good shots.” Alf was filling in time. He just stood there. He thought Maz had more to say.

“You saw the cat,” Maz went on, “The pellet went into the body. It was a cruel one. I would never try to kill a cat like that; it would be too risky. Using an air rifle on a creature that big, you might just leave it with a painful wound. But the truth is it was me who fired the shot and I would like to explain.”

Now the sun was high enough, I could see Maz more clearly. He was a fine-looking man, upright, broad-shouldered, with cheekbones which pushed up the skin of his face and eyes like shining beads. He wore a trim, dark beard and moustache.

He slotted the squirrels into a huge pouch inside his jacket and hooked his gun across his back. He was a little stiff, not hostile but edgy. Alf started to walk up the Avenue.

“I say you come back with us to my plot and I’ll brew something up. Then we can talk. We’ve finished here. People will be up and about soon.”

*

A cuppa, a brew, a cup of char. When Alf poured in the hot water, he called what he was making a Rosy. The mugs were steaming, then he plopped in the milk and the bitter smell of the tea reached over. He had biscuits, Fig Rolls and Shrewsburys, which he passed round once we had the mugs in our hands and were letting the first sips splash around our mouths.

It was the right way to deal with Maz. He had propped up his gun in the shed and settled into the only chair. His arms had looked hard, like bent pieces of metal; now one flopped down his side while the other nursed his mug. Alf took the upturned bucket while I perched on a log.

I asked Maz where he had learnt to shoot so well. I was worried he would think I was prying, but it turned out he wanted to talk.

“It was in the police. I was a marksman. Learnt about every sort of firearm. That’s where I got the name Maz. I am Mo Azar, but they shorten everything, so I became Maz and the name stuck. I like it. When I left, I kept up my licence. I don’t need it for this air gun but I have a certificate for a .22 Browning and a .308 Sako.

They’re for the deer. I go out for estate managers and deal with any deer problems they have. They ask for me because I shoot straight. Not so many shots needed, you see. It is better for the animals and I make less noise. Don’t startle the horses, or the humans. That’s it.”

Maz was smiling now. Alf wanted to know what happened to all the venison.

“Ah well, that is good question, because sometimes they give me one of the deer afterwards. It might be a roe deer or fallow. Or muntjac. Muntjac can be good to eat as well. I take the carcass home and prepare the meat in an outbuilding I have at the bottom of the garden. And then I give it away to my friends. So one day I can give you some venison if you would like.”

“Yes, right. That’s good of you, Maz.”

Alf was grinning as if it was his birthday and nodding eagerly. But I was back to thinking about the hunting I had seen that morning.

“What about the squirrels, though?”

“That is for sport, and practice. I like hunting them. I enjoy going out in the early mornings as well. I was used to early starts when I worked in the police and it is very peaceful at that time. But the squirrels, I do not eat them. In my religion they are classified as vermin and not to be eaten. Sometimes I prepare them and give away, or I just give them as soon as I have them, so I want you to have these ones.”

The two dead squirrels had been stowed in his pouch all this time. He pulled them out by their tails and handed them to Alf, who accepted the present without protest. He had a wooden box just inside the door and they went straight in. Everyone knew that we had strayed off the subject, though, even Maz, who sat up in the chair and laid his mug on the old tea chest.

“Now I shall tell you what happened with the cat.”

“Mopey Dick,” I said and Maz raised an eyebrow. “That was his name.”

“I see. Mopey Dick. I’m sorry. You must understand that Mopey Dick was a wily fellow. He caught me out, but that led to his end. I was close to here on a very quiet morning, looking at the big rubbish bins outside the gate. That is a busy area for squirrels.

“They don’t just eat nuts, you know. They will take old food and some produce from here that people throw away. So they are all around. They think they own the place. Anyway, I put some bait on top of one of the bins and went some distance off to wait for my chance. There was no one near, in case you are concerned.”

“Something tells me old Mopey was lying in wait as well,” said Alf.

“It is true. The cat was lurking somewhere nearby. I don’t know where because I had not seen him. The squirrels were moving on the bait. They were very enthusiastic, so to speak. I could see four or five of them. I do not know what was going through Mopey Dick’s mind but I imagine that he was a very excited animal, waiting, watching and ready to pounce.

“We must have had exactly the same instinct about when to strike, because when I pulled the trigger, he had already sprinted across the tarmac and was leaping in the air to take a squirrel, which was crouched with a nut on the edge of one of the waste bins. It was the same one that I was aiming at, aiming directly at the head, as I always do. The cat came up in a sort of twisting curve.

“Please remember that these bins are a metre off the ground. He would have had the squirrel’s neck in his jaws, but I had already fired and he blocked my shot. He saved his fellow animal’s life. It was not his intention, of course, but Mopey Dick was at that moment a hero among squirrels.”

Alf was astounded. He was living a moment of clarity and discovery.

“So he was a hunter. I know he chased the rats. But a hunter of squirrels, and an eater.”

“I have no doubt at all. He was a squirrel-hunter and eater of considerable skill.”

“You see, he looked like a slob. He loafed about all day, but that’s after he had been on the prowl early on, seeking his prey.” Alf was looking from one of us to the other. I thought he might slip off his bucket. “Why do you think he was so fat? He was fat on the fruit of labours. That’s what it was.

“And another thing. Those bushy tails I’ve seen lying about: they are what he left behind. Have to be. He must have gobbled up the rest of those squirrels whole. He was a master of what he did. Then he would stretch out like a king after his feasting.”

Alf was turning our tea party into a celebration of the life of Mopey Dick. He was spluttering with glee.

“What you’re saying is that Mopey Dick was the Fourth Man,” I said, “He was one of the Nice Ones.”

Maz looked puzzled. We would have to explain.

“Yes, he was,” Alf replied. He took another sip and cocked his head to the side, letting out an appreciative sigh.

“He was one of us Nice Ones. Me, Mall, Maz here, and Mopey Dick.”

Simon Gompertz, author of The Nice Ones, 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: All Fired Up

See also: A Museum of Knives – A short story by Simon Gompertz

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