By Robert Dalvean
Manfred Clootie was a poet who moonlighted as a thief (or. perhaps, a thief who moonlighted as a poet). He went on and on, thieving and scribbling for many a year and was neither imprisoned nor published. He was, however, sometimes detained, but usually for loitering. Police in the sanctified past had such powers of apprehension and detention that a modern-day probationary constable who sits dreaming of mayhem as he caresses his truncheon would willingly die to enjoy.
On one such occasion, he worked so diligently that he had to lie low for a year afterwards . . .
Go with him and visit a police station. But be careful. These are not the gentlemen of today, armed bureaucrats who could smother a Ned Kelly in paper before he could even draw his pistol. These are what our fathers and grandfathers called “The Wallopers”. And they are not men to tolerate even a suggestion of disrespect.
The scene is always the same here; the time never changes. This is the police station. It’s known as South-East. Two miles away – and miles they must be, not kilometres, for this is some time ago – stands the south-West Police Station. Between the denizens of these two bastions of the law there is a loathing that can no longer be explained, since its roots are hidden in the past.
The interior is police-station modern in style, the style enthusiastically embraced in the Fifties and regretted ever since. But you can only do so much. The nineteenth Century lurks beneath the half-hearted improvements. Electrical conduits snake up the walls. They seem to come from the 1930s. A picture of a young Queen Elizabeth brightens one wall, along with a plaque saying: South-East District Police Station, established 1875. There are many posters and “wanted” notices. The light is low except for a desk angled towards us, at which a seasoned, uniformed man, Sergeant Crowe, bespectacled, bald, sits apparently writing. A small television set sits to his right. Its monochrome screen is alight but the screen is too small for us to know what is showing. The sergeant glances towards the screen from time to time. No computers are to be seen, no mobile phones (we are still in the Age of Comparative Innocence), but there is a rack of communication equipment, with a microphone mounted on a small desk. In front of the sergeant stands a manual typewriter. His desk is orderly.
The desk sits to our right. Opposite it, a set of half-glazed double doors, stands open.
Commotion from outside. The sergeant looks up, frowns. Two uniformed policemen, constables Heen and Garbutt, (to Manfred Clootie all police duos are Heen and Garbutt) drag a prisoner, whom we shall call The Man. He seems unable to walk properly. They haul him through the door and up to the desk. The Man is taller than the constables; his blond hair is untidy and his clothes don’t fit him properly.
“What have you got there?” says Sergeant Crowe. And Constable Heen replies, “Dunno. We found him down the end of the street.”
“What was he doin’?”
The Sergeant raises his eyebrows.
Constable Garbutt, observing the eyebrows, which remain raised, says uncertainly, “Yeah, Sarge, nothin’ at all. Just standin’ and – well, like takin’ the air. We thought he might have been taken crook or lost his memory or somethin’, so we brung ‘im in.”
“You brung ‘im in?”
“You know when yer brung ‘im in?”
The two policemen look sheepish; their prisoner, taller than either of them, blond hair cut short, eyes expressionless, remains at attention.
Constable Heen speaks: “Yeah, we brung ‘im in when we – “
But the sergeant interrupts: “You brung ‘im in half way through fuckin’ Maverick. That’s when.”
Constable Garbutt glances at the television screen, and sure enough sees Roger Moore.
The sergeant shakes his head.
“I dunno what they teach you young buggers at Bonehead College these days, but number one item in the syllabus oughta be: don’t bring any pisspots in ‘ere when Maverick’s on.” He allows his disapproval to festoon the room, then says, “Well, let’s get back to our pisspot.”
“I don’t think he’s pissed, Sarge, ventures Constable Garbutt.
“You . . . don’t . . . think . . .” (He pretends to write down Garbutt’s words, then looks fiercely at all three men) “You didn’t think, didn’t you? No, you didn’t. If you’d of thunk, you’d have known this isn’t the Salvation Fuckin’ Army.”
He stares directly at The Man; his eyes widen. Quickly he looks away. He covers his discomfort by fiddling with paper. Then he looks obliquely at The Man.
“Well,” he says, “what’ve you got t say for yourself, Sunshine? Comin’ in ‘ere, buggerin’ up a man’s well-earned rest. Fancy a night in the cells, do you.”
The Man remains expressionless. The Sergeant shakes his head.
“I think you can let go of him. He doesn’t look like Ned Kelly – or even Ned Kelly’s grandma.”
Both policemen let go of The Man’s arms and the arms fall to his sides, where they hang like ropes. The policemen, frowning, rub their hands together as if they’re contaminated. The sergeant looks quickly at The Man, then quickly away.
Almost in a whisper, he says, “What’s your name, son?”
After a moment of non-communication, the sergeant rolls his eyes skyward
“Well, here’s a first. I’m gunna agree with you two geniuses.”
The Man’s face shows nothing. The others look foolishly pleased, briefly.
Constable Heen says, “Seein’ it our way, Sarge?”
The sergeant is now everyone’s favourite uncle, his manner expansive. He pushes his glasses up on his forehead, rubs his hands together and attempts once more to look at The Man. Then, quickly looking away, he regards The Man obliquely, resuming his avuncular manner.
Then he laughs mirthlessly and says, “Seein’ it your way! Look, lad, I’m no genius. They’re never gonna give me a prize for out-thinking Eisenstein, or whatever his name is, but to see things your way – well, I’d need to be a certified fuckwit. Is that what you think I am? ‘Cos if you do . . . “
The telephone rings with a suddenness that upsets everybody except The Man. The sergeant snatches up the telephone, mutters into it.
“Yeah, OK, we’ll have a look”
He puts down phone, looks up and says to the constables, “This isn’t your night. There’s another one.”
Constable Heen, risking all, says, “Another what, Sarge?”
“Another loiterer, for crysakes. South-west spotted him, but he got away. Now he’s in our area.”
“How do we find him?”
The sergeant smiles maliciously.
“You go out that door, turn right, walk up the street very quietly and you’ll find him keeping dry under a tree.”
“How do you know?”
“Because that’s where those lazy bastards from South-West saw him, that’s how. He’s in our territory, so it’s your job to bring him in. They didn’t even stop their car . . . bastards!”
Constable Heen speaks: “What about . . . him?”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s not after my virginity. I can handle him. You two piss off – and try and bring him back in one piece. I’ve had enough of official enquiries to last me a lifetime. I hope he’s a rapist. I haven’t been molested for years.”
The constables back cautiously away from The Man, who does not move. Then they turn and leave, watched by the sergeant, who then tries once more to look The Man in the eye, but shies away.
He addresses the man without looking at him.
“Of course, I could be wrong, couldn’t I? You could be dangerous. Well, dunno about you, mate . . . I’m goin’ back to Clint.”
But now a door opens and Detective Inspector Don Gray enters, juggling files, which he drops with a curse. As he bends to retrieve them, Sergeant Crowe turns towards him.
“Jeez! What are you doin’, Don. Scared the shit outa me.”
“Farkin’ paperwork, that’s what I’m doin’. I joined the force to help sufferin’ yoomanity . . .
“Pig’s arse! You joined because no one else’d ’ave ya . . . “
“Yeah there was that. Anyway, ’ere I am, shufflin’ paper. Might as well work in a bank. At least no one punches you there . . .”
“Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard all that . . . look, if you’d like a change, try talkin’ to Standin’ Jim here.”
The detective dumps the file on Sergeant Crowe’s desk and saunters round to where the man stands.
After a long scrutiny, he says, “What the tuppenny fuck is it?
“Maybe he’ll tell you if you talk nice. He won’t tell me- or anyone else . . . Ah Shit!”
The sergeant points to The Man.
“’Im, that’s what. Me two boneheads lug ’im in, in the middle of Maverick, if yer please, and now I’ve missed the end”. He smiles “Oh, they’re gunna get some lovely jobs, those two. A nice domestic to start . . . .”
Don stares into the eyes of The Man, examining him as if he were a side of beef. He turns his gaze away quickly and then covers his uncertainty by prattling on merrily.
“Hello, mate. What brings you out this fair evenin’? I’m Detective Inspector Don Gray. Who’re you?”
No response, a pause and then Don says to the sergeant, “Have you called the nuthouses, see who’s escaped?”
Sergeant Crowe shakes His head and mutters something
“I don’t think he’s one of ours,” Don says. “Hand him over and lets get some rest.”
Commotion at the door as the two policemen return, holding a tall, thin young man who looks not at all put out at being manhandled. He is dark-haired, with a drooping moustache, late twenties, looking remarkably like the picture of Henry Lawson later to be seen on the back of a ten-dollar note.
It’s Constable Heen’s time for Show and Tell.
“Here’s your loiterer, Sarge.” Then to Don he says,” How’s it goin’, sir? Puttin’ ‘em away?”
“Stop calling me sir, it makes me feel old. Yeah, I’m puttin’ ‘em away, and I’ll put you with ’em if you give too much lip. What’s that you’ve got?”
Constable Garbutt replies.
“Loiterin’ with intent, sir – ah, Don.”
“Jeez! Can they still make that stick?”
“I can make anything stick,” says Sergeant Crowe.
“like a fly to a cobweb . . .,” says Constable Heen.
“Like shit to a shovel . . .” says Constable Garbutt.
The newcomer is not listening. His eyes are fixed on The Man. Fascinated, he begins to move towards him. He is restrained by the two policemen.
“Oh Dear, oh dear!” says Don. “Trying to escape. Well, there’s another charge.”
For the first time, the newcomer speaks. His voice sounds like that of an old-time radio announcer, a voice of faked gentility, a voice whose tone would not survive two stiff drinks.
“Escape, my dear chap, you will find was never further from my mind.”
“Jeez! You always talk like that . . . or was it an accident?”
“Call it a gift, call it a curse. When I speak, I speak in verse . . . “
Constable Heen says, “Ah, cut out the bullshit. Anyone can do that. Listen. There was a girl from the Azores, who was covered with horrible . . .”
“That’ll do nicely,” says the sergeant. “If I want you to talk like a poof, I’ll tell you.”
At this point, a book falls from the newcomer’s inside pocket. Constable Heen pounces on it, looks at it, frowns, turns it right way up, looks inside it.
“Don’t keep it to yourself, Constable, share it with us. What is it?”
“It’s a . . . book.
“He’s a bright one,” says Don “I can see a brilliant future for this lad.”
“Well, it’s property now,” says the sergeant.” So we’ll have to enter it. What’s it called?”
Constable Heen frowns.
“Quartets. It’s called Four Quartets. It’s by TS Eliot,” says the prisoner.”
There is a long silence.
“They’re poems,” he adds.
Don speaks out in triumph: “You forgot to speak in rhyme.”
“I don’t do that in . . . his . . . presence.”
Constable Garbutt brightens suddenly, as if a lighted bulb had suddenly appeared in a bubble over his head.
“You know what Sarge? You know what we got here?”
“No, but I know you’re gunna tell me.”
“What we got here . . . is . . . a reader!”
The dead silence following this lasts for five long seconds.
“A reader?” says the sergeant.
“A reader?” says Don.
Constable Heen approaches the young man, pulls out a truncheon.
“So you read, do you,” he says.
“I’ve never caught a reader before,” says Constable Garbutt.
He too pulls out a truncheon.
All the policemen speak at once, hissing the words hoarsely.
Another dead silence. Sergeant Crowe suddenly shakes his head as if trying to clear it.
“Right,” he says, “let’s start again – with your name. I don’t suppose it’s Mr Reader.”
He points to the constables’ drawn truncheons and says, “Put them away!”
The constables sheathe their truncheons – reluctantly. Don shakes his head as if emerging from a faint.)
The prisoner speaks: “I would not care to shirk my duty. My name, Good Sir, is Manfred Clootie.”
Unimpressed, the sergeant picks up his pen and says, “Address?”
“I dwell in rooms, so small, discreet at twenty five Dunbolen Street.”
Don, ignoring all this, has been examining The Man with interest. He looks into The Man’s eyes and shies as from a powerful light.
“Shit! . . . What . . was . . . that?”
“Lookin’s bad enough,” says Constable Garbutt. “You wanna try touchin’ ‘im.”
“Touch him! I’ll belt the shit out of him!”
He takes The Man’s hand roughly, clamping his other hand on The Man’s wrist. He shrieks and drops the hand, rubbing his own hands together.
“Cold, isn’t he?” says Constable Garbutt.
“That’s not cold. It’s . . . I think I’ve got frostbite.”
Clootie, meanwhile, has been staring at The Man in fascination. He moves towards him and is again overpowered by the two policemen.
“Enough! Kind sirs. It’s all in fun. I really will not try to run.”
Clootie, released, moves towards The Man, stands in front of him, looking down, then raises his eyes . . . and stares. At first he is forced to blink, then he holds The Man’s gaze. He reaches out to take The Man’s hand.
“Careful! He’s dangerous!”
Clootie shakes his head, takes the hand, shudders, but holds on. Then he speaks in a quiet, reassuring voice.
“I’m the cutpurse, Manfred Clootie, one who never worked for booty. If you value purse or locket, do not let me near your pocket. Ask me in to drink or dine, your silverware’s as good as mine – by which I mean, once I have fled, all security is dead, but if I like your dear wife’s bonnet, I’ll inscribe a sonnet on it . . . Oh Christ! That’s a dreadful jingle in the last line. I’m ashamed of myself. Apologies to you all.”
After this, The Man does not take his eyes from Clootie. He moves his head to keep him in view. Clootie drops the hand and then furiously rubs his hands together. Spotting Sergeant Crowe’s teapot, he rushes to place his hands on it. After a few seconds, he sighs and speaks to the sergeant.
“Here’s all he has, no wallet, no locket. I give to you the contents of his pocket.”
He hands Don a small bottle. Don takes the stopper off, sniffs it and blows out his breath explosively.
“Jesus Christ! It’s cyanide. Lucky we got hold of this in time.”
“Call it luck or call it fate. Whatever you call it, it’s too late.”
“You mean he’s already used it on some poor bugger . . . Oh Christ! Think of the paperwork!”
“Wait a minute! How did you get hold of this?”
“Weren’t you listening. I’m a dip. I only had to bump his hip . . “
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, if you’re so good, try taking something of mine.”
Clootie smiles and casually moves towards Don, who is standing with fist cocked, ready to punch.. Clootie brushes against him lightly, smiles, backs off.
“I’m sorry. Wasn’t watching. You all right? I cannot see well in this evil light.”
He stands in front of Don with his hands clasped as if in prayer. Don is sneering.
“Told you he couldn’t do it.”
“Don’t take this game to heart, it’s fun. May I, please, handle your gun.”
“Well, that’s an easy one . . . No!”
Reflexively, he reaches under his jacket, suddenly looks panicked, looks down at the floor.
“Where is it?”
Clootie opens his hands. The gun rests on one of his palms. Don snatches it back, pulls back his fist . . .
Sergeant Crowe waves both hands frantically.
“Don! Don! Think of the paperwork!”
Don calms down.
“You’re good. I’ll give you that,” he says.
“So good, my friend, that you have failed to see, that something which is yours remains with me.”
Doubtfully, Don goes through his pockets.
“No? . . .No?. . .Wait a minute!”
“Looking for this?” says Clootie. “I’m so sorry . . .”
He holds out a wallet, which Don snatches from him. Clootie’s mouth is open. He’s obviously trying to find a rhyme for “sorry”, when a voice that sounds as if it needs a lot of practice before it will be fit for conversation speaks. It is the voice of The Man.
“Doom! Doom! Doom! Doom . . . the gates . . .the pale, glowing light… the journey … the great bell . . . dust over the earth and all that is in it . . . doom! Doom! Doom! . . . ”
“Oh, give it a rest,” says Don.
To The Man, Clootie says, “Please, be at ease.”
Sergeant Crowe is now thoroughly exasperated.
“Oh, fuckin’ great. First they turn me station into a nuthouse, then one of the inmates takes over . . . “
“He won’t listen to you, only to me. For I’m the only one that he can see.”
“What’s so hot about you? You’re just a thief, a stinkin’ little dip. That’s what you are – but what do you think you are.”
“Manfred Clootie, Alias Dracula, leech of the soul . . .”
“Did you plant that bottle on him?” Don says.
“My dear detective, that is so absurd. My weapon is the deadly poisoned word.”
Don addresses the ceiling.
“I’ll murder this bastard, I’m tellin’ you, he’s ratshit. Good as dead.”
Clootie speaks to The Man, saying, “Your death has meaning now, you may relax, for I’ve embalmed you in my own syntax.”
The Man lifts a hand as if in benediction, then lets it fall.
Constable Garbutt speaks up.
“Look Sarge, Don, I know I’m speakin’ out of turn, but –“
The other three policemen bellow at him: “Shuddup!”
A yodelling sound is heard coming from outside, then wild laughter and a man is catapulted through the door, falling to all-fours.
A car is heard roaring away.
“Those South-West shitheads! That’s the second time tonight. They won’t pinch anyone as long as we’re open. Bastards! I’ll be fillin’ in forms forever.”
He leans over to speak to the newcomer, who is still on the floor.
The man on the floor gets to his feet. He is now seen to be an ordinary sort of man in his mid-forties. He cautiously approaches the desk.
“I . . . I want to put in a complaint.”
There is no response.
“I was out walking – “
“Oh yes, like everyone else in this stinkin’ town this balmy night. Must be the lowest ratings ever for Maverick.”
“Actually, I was going for a run.”
“In those clothes?” says Don, eyeing the man’s suit.
“Well, you know, daily grind and all that. Didn’t have time to change.”
Sergeant Crowe says,” Look, mate, it’s beginning to be a long night. Just tell us your name.”
“Russell Boone. I think your colleagues from that other police station – “
“South-West,” snarls Sergeant Crowe.
“I think they were having some fun at my, at our – expense.”
Suddenly, the man turns and stares at the stranger. Everyone is so surprised to see The Man move that they turn to stare at him. The Man lifts his hand and points at the stranger, who, puzzled, turns to stare back.
With a strangled cry, the stranger falls to the floor, apparently in a dead faint. Constable Heen rushes to help him, kneels down, feels his throat, starts back.
“Sarge! He’s not breathing. No pulse. I think . . . I think he’s . . . dead.”
“He’s not the only one,” says Clootie.
He walks up to The Man, who has been moving his head, body and eyes to follow all Clootie’s movements.
“It’s time, don’t you think.”
The Man slumps to the floor. The constables run towards him, drop to their knees. Then they rise and back off.
“Tell me he’s not dead,” says Sergeant Crowe.
“He was dead all along,” says Clootie.
“How do you know?”
“Well, that’s my trade, Dracula, leech of the soul. I’m a pickpocket by trade, a poet by fate. And poets are vampires that suck the life’s blood out of people and transmute it into language. Oh, and it wouldn’t much surprise me if the late Mr Boone’s fingerprints weren’t to be found on the bottle, the one that stinks of cyanide.”
“Have you noticed you aren’t speaking in rhyme anymore?” Says Don.
“No need. My work is done.”
“Your work! You strike me as someone who’s never done a hand’s turn. We’re the poor buggers who’ll be doin’ the work. Well, Don will, anyway . . . “
“Not me. I wasn’t here. I was upstairs doin’ paperwork.”
Sergeant Crowe exhales mightily and then speaks slowly and deliberately to Clootie.
“I’ll tell you what you’re gunna do. You’re gunna turn round, walk out of here, go home and never let me see your stupid moustache again.”
Clootie makes a big thing of shaking hands with everyone, even bending down to pat the dead Boone, and then leaves. Don sits down heavily as though everything has been too much for him
“This town has some strange buggers in it, doesn’t it, says the sergeant.
Constable Garbutt says,” What are we gunna do with . . . them?”
“They probably came from South-West’s territory, so we’ll get the address from – what was his name? Boone? Yeah, we’ll get the address from his wallet and dump both of them at Boone’s place. Can’t wait to see the looks on those South-West bastards’ faces.”
Constable Garbutt’s face shows the effect of deep concentration.
“So you reckon,” he says, “that this bloke” (pointing to Boone) knocked of that bloke” (pointing to The Man)” – and then got haunted by him?”
“Don’t try to think, Son. You’re not built for it. Just get Mr Boone’s wallet.”
But it is Don who fishes for Boone’s wallet and then suddenly stands.
He furiously searches his pockets. Then he drops down next to Boone and searches him. He stands and stares at the sergeant.
“Care to check your pockets . . . all of you,” says Don.
There is a flurry of pocket-searching. They all rush to the door, but pull up when they find their wallets on the threshold. Don stoops for his wallet, pulls out various cards and bits of paper.
“He took the money and left the rest,” he says.
He looks at a second wallet.
“And here’s Mr Boone’s address.”
To the constables, the sergeant says, “Get the car out, chaps, we’ve got work to do.”
“What about the pickpocket?” says Constable Heen.
“Forget him. He was never here, besides . . . it’d be too much paperwork.”