Ten Sycamore Hill was, in Peter James’ mind, the font of all of his misfortunes. While women, work, cars and kids came and went, the only constant in Peter’s turbulent life – apart from the copious amounts of alcohol that he consumed, of course – was that weather-beaten Victorian detached house overlooking Hart Village; its increasingly battered facade and interior seeming to degenerate with each one of his trials and tribulations.
With every one of Peter’s disappointments, a window frame would crumble; with every disaster – romantic or otherwise – a door handle would come loose or slates would be ripped from the roof by an unsympathetic wind; when his health failed, so did the heating. And, as Peter’s bank account was slowly depleted, the wallpaper and paint seamed to peel itself free from the walls before his eyes.
Each night, as a drunken Peter staggered back from another interminable drinking session at the Raby Arms, he would look up at his home perched on the hill, looming over the village like a great black crow and, soaked in alcoholic self-pity, he would curse: ‘Fuck. Fuckin’…fucker…fuck.’ Or words to that effect.
And then, one October, as Halloween loomed, Peter had an idea so bright that it was positively incandescent.
The Raby Arms, an anonymous country pub amongst a cluster of anonymous country pubs, was always smoggy – despite the smoking ban – and, indeed, the interior, including the mirrors, the windows and the faces of most of the regulars, all seemed to have a nicotine sheen. As on most nights, the pub was half-empty.
‘You know, it’s actually possible to kill someone with a bottle of Pepsi and a packet of Mintoes?’ said JT, peeling an unlit pin-sized roll up from his bottom lip.
‘Oh, aye?’ said Peter, as he hung his camel coat on the moose head coat rack and sat opposite JT with a sigh. ‘Not a lot of people know that.’
‘Aye,’ said JT. ‘Well, it’s true. According to Big Jim. Reckons that he saw it on that YOU TUBE.’
JT, a gaunt, jaundiced-looking man with a spidery black quiff, was sat at his usual corner table, near a buzzing slot machine, drumming his fingers on his pint glass to The Shadow’s ‘Apache’, which played from to a crackly speaker.
Peter sipped his pint of Stella, gazed at the fading bat-wing tattoos on his hands and faded in on the memory of a drunken night at a Newcastle tattoo parlor that then segued into the time he first met his wife, Deborah, at Astros nightclub. Twenty five years ago now. There’d been a lot of booze under the bridge since then, he thought.
He looked at JT. A former hardman, just like him, and had a flashback to the night when it all started to go wrong. When they’d thrown a rowdy punter down the stairs at Astros with a little too much enthusiasm. The policemen on the scene had also shown a little too much enthusiasm for the arrest and the ensued injuries had, luckily for Peter and JT, resulted in a suspended sentence. But the stains remained.
There was a loud bang and Big Jim burst through the doors. Peter and JT both laughed as Jim stumbled into the toilets, his fly open, muttering to himself.
‘Here he is, the David Niven of Hart Village,’ smirked JT.
‘So you reckon it’s a non-starter then?’ said Peter, massaging his left arm.
JT took a swig of Stella.
‘Oh, aye. Great idea. Get Big Jim to burn down your house and then collect on the insurance. A foolproof plan, that. About as foolproof as that canoeist that did a Lord Lucan and ended up getting spotted in Rio or somewhere.’
JT had a point, thought Peter. Big Jim wasn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the box. He remembered the time in the pub quiz when Big Jim had answered a question about the largest Loch in Scotland with ‘Chub’. However, Jim was cheap and Peter really wanted rid of that house. The bills were mounting up and the Invalidity Benefit that he’s started getting after his first heart attack barely covered his drinking sessions.
Peter sighed again and slouched in his chair as he wiped his sweating brow with his ubiquitous tie.
‘Just think,’ he said. ‘Bonfire Night’s coming up. It’s like Full Matal Jacket out there some nights. This time of year, kids are always pushing bangers and fireworks through people letterboxes. It’s happened to me loads of times. Now, if I happen to leave some booze splashed around the place and work on my motorbike in the front room and it catches fire, well…’
They both looked up as Big Jim plonked down next to them.
‘Peter, I’m your man,’ said Big Jim.
‘I’ll take that with a mountain of Saxa,’ said JT.
The night stumbled on and JT and Big Jim left Peter propped up at the bar, tearing the label from a bottle of Newcastle Brown. He was watching Lewis, trying to ignore the numb feeling in his arm. It had been creeping up on him with greater regularity these days. Doctors were out of the question. Overpaid quacks, he thought. Well, he had thought that since Dr. Khan had misdiagnosed his dad’s cancer as ‘constipation’ a few years before. Feeling weak, he went to sit down when he heard the bang.
‘Bollox!’ he shouted. ‘He hasn’t… he…’
Hot, sweating and wheezing, Peter rushed out of the pub and up the cobbled path towards his burning home.
‘Tosser!’ he shouted at Big Jim, who was tripping, tumbling and stumbling down the path in a panic.
Peter was burning up with anger and the pain in his arm was getting worse. He suddenly heard a sound behind him, turned and saw a bedraggled bunch of vampires, werewolves and ghosts.
‘Trick or treat!’ they shouted.
‘Oh, bollox,’ whispered Peter and then he gasped and crumpled to the ground like a demolished building.
The weight of a mammoth was on Peter’s chest before the last stages of the coronary kicked in. The costumed kids deftly lifted his wallet and watch and, as they frisked him, Peter looked up at his burning house and saw its black silhouette against the waxing moon, his vision starting to fade.
Ten Sycamore Hill’s windows and front door seemed to light up a glowing red, like the eyes and mouth of a grinning Jack O’Lantern, the flames darting about like a lunatic’s tongue. And then he thought he heard a maniacal laugh.