Pines have a special significance at this time of year. They provide us with our traditional (well, Victorian, German-imported) yuletide household centrepiece. For the French, they have a certain sinister connotation. “Dormir sous les pines” (To sleep under the pines) is a euphemism for death. I wouldn’t be surprised if Norway is haunted by the shades of Dryads made homeless when their residences were chopped down to satisfy the demand for Christmas trees.
While working in the park, towards the end of December and into January, I often see the result of this, discarded trees destined for the wood-chipping machine. That is part of the inspiration for opening of the story I now offer as a pre-Christmas gift to you, dear reader, entitled ‘Jim Bloom’s Van’. This is the first instalment, with others to follow. If you can’t wait for the rest, the entire grisly tale is to be found in my collection, Last Stop Wellsbourne, along with others concerning the real lost river Wellesbourne and the imaginary lost town of Wellsbourne.
And now Part One of ‘Jim Bloom’s Van’:
Jim Bloom’s Van, Part One
A fine, drizzly mist speckled the twin beams of the headlamps. Sam had them on full so he could check the park bins in the darkness. He preferred to start early on his rounds, before all the parents and dog-walkers came into the park, letting their uncontrolled brats and mutts tear around in front of his van.
He checked himself. Not “his” van. Bloom’s.
Well, strictly speaking it didn’t belong to him or to the dead man, but to Wellsbourne Borough Council.
As he lifted the bag, heavy with small sacks of dog shit, out of the bin, he felt as if someone was watching him. He dismissed the thought with a shake of the head. There was no one about. Who wanted to wander around the park on a black, dreary morning in January?
Exactly. No one.
In that case, who was whistling that sad old folk tune?
He couldn’t see anybody, but then it was horribly dark and foggy. The van’s headlamps punched a pair of bright tunnels through the gloom, firefly water droplets floating through them, but outside their harsh illumination, he couldn’t see a thing.
Except the man silhouetted in the van’s windscreen.
“Hey!” he said, his breathing coming fast and ragged with alarm at the faceless outline. Was this the whistler? Never mind about that! All he could think about now was the trouble he’d be in if some scroat drove one of the firm’s vans off because Sam Jordan had left the door open and the keys in the ignition.
He made for the driver’s door, reaching for his phone, ready to ring the police and make sure the intruder knew it. The shape moved with him. He steeled himself for a confrontation, adrenaline coursing, but no-one emerged from the door. He felt such an idiot. Talk about frightened of your own shadow! It must have been his own reflection in the windscreen’s black glass, face obscured by the light-beams’ dazzle.
He shook his head, replaced the bin-bag, stretching it over the bin like a skin over the frame of a drum. In the quiet of the park, the noise of this disgusted him, or maybe it was the foul smell of the full bag at his feet, mingling with the aroma of damp earth, as well as some other odour he couldn’t quite place. He climbed back into the driving seat, groaning at his aching muscles. The creaking of the vehicle’s gears seemed to echo them. It reminded him he was on Christmas trees today—loading discarded conifers, their limbs heavy with rainwater, from the designated, fenced-off council dumping sites onto the van’s flat-bed, driving them up to the tip for shredding into bark chippings. Over and over again.
By now he’d put the whistling to the back of his mind, laughing at the idea he’d been listening out for it in the silence of the pre-dawn.
Bloom had been quite a one for whistling, he remembered, as he returned to the yard for morning break. It had been one of the many things about him that had set Fred Bone’s teeth on edge. Sam remembered the foreman grinding them together whenever the senior gardener had made his characteristic hissing half-whistle. Sam had to admit he shared his superior’s dislike of it, though his wasn’t as strong as Fred’s. But then that man never did anything by halves and his antagonism towards Jim Bloom was no exception. He’d tried constructive dismissal, taking out grievances, disciplinary procedures, anything to get rid of Bloom.
Nothing could shift him. He clung to his job like a limpet. eH
Sam never had found out what was at the root of Bone’s vendetta, but he’d always been careful to act friendly towards Bloom only when just the two of them were in the van, the senior gardener driving, him in the passenger seat as driver’s mate.
How he’d longed to sit in the driving seat! Well, he’d got his wish now. They were saying he might get promotion to senior gardener too, but at what a price, he reminded himself. The police hadn’t found the assailants, three against one they reckoned, a cowardly, vicious attack, boot-prints all over his shattered skull.
He remembered the day Bloom hadn’t turned up to work. The remaining members of the grounds maintenance team were sitting in the mess room, slouching on reclaimed sofas.
“Anyone seen Numpty Dumpty?” Fred asked, popping his bubble gum as he rolled a cigarette.
Sam had shrugged, looked towards Simple Simon, who shook his dead-eyed head.
“Probably off titivating some wild flowers somewhere,” suggested Paul Flock, flexing his abs.
They’d all laughed at Paul’s sneering emphasis, Sam included.
“Might just be hung over,” he suggested. “Might even have pulled!”
This prospect redoubled their mirth.
“Numpty Dumpty sat on a wall,” Paul sang tunelessly.
“Numpty Dumpty had a great fall,” Fred added to general hilarity, his close-set eyes studying Sam’s reaction carefully.
The four of them agreed Bloom was a bit of a hippy. He’d even opted for a full pagan funeral in the woods with all his odd-ball mates, weirdy-beardy men and women with hairy armpits. Flock had seemed more disgusted by this than the thought of a gang of thugs stamping on the man’s head. Sam had found his late colleague hard work, even a bit irritating at times, with his air of injured self-righteousness and his stubborn refusal to use the chemical sprayer, but no one deserved what had happened to him.
“Well, I hope they find the bastards who did it,” said Fred when Sam arrived in the mess room to see him behind his foreman’s desk and Paul sprawled on the couch.
“Yeah, hope they get what’s coming to them,” Flock added quickly, not to be outdone by his superior.
Again Bone had his eye on Sam’s reaction.
“Was there any CCTV footage?” he asked, looking at Paul. “Of him leaving the club I mean.”
Paul looked at Fred, as if for help.
“Might have picked up someone following him out of there,” Sam added.
“Come on, Sam, mate! It was Christmas. Paul must have forgotten to switch them on. Ain’t that right, Paul?”
Paul seemed to have forgotten for a moment he was the head door supervisor for the club, he looked so blank. This was unlike him, for usually his main topic of conversation was his endless boasting that he earned far more from weekends and evenings at this part-time employment than he did from his full-time day-job with the Council parks department.
“Yeah, that’s right. Didn’t switch them on that night. Don’t always use them.”
Sam nodded. The look in the foreman’s eyes warned him against pursuing it further. Instead he said, “So where’s Simple Simon then?”
The question remained unanswered as Sam drove his first load of the day up to the dump. Daylight still struggled to emerge from the pall of fog and drizzle. A sign made of yellow lights warned him not to drive while on drugs. No problem there! He’d run out of dope the previous evening, though it was possible what he’d smoked last night was still in his system, affecting his concentration.
The discarded Christmas trees bristling from the back of the van gave it a festive appearance, despite the fact it signalled the end of the holiday period and the gradual return to work. But the mood in the mess-room had been sombre. When Fred had tried to phone Simon, it had gone straight to answerphone, echoing Bloom’s unexplained absence before the news came of his terrible end.
This was different of course. Firstly Fred Bone liked Simon. He’d had taken the younger man under his wing, his mild but obvious learning difficulties bringing out a rare softer side in the surly foreman, who almost treated the lad as if he were an adopted son. In return Simon looked up to his boss with the kind of hero worship that guaranteed unquestioning loyalty. The other difference was that Simon had actually turned up to work but had failed to appear for morning break after Fred had sent him to pick up an aerating machine.
“Maybe he met a pie man,” Sam had said, but Bone hadn’t appreciated the jest, glowering at him from beneath furrowed brows.
Probably just skiving off or something. But why miss his tea-break then?
No point in thinking about it. A car weaved out of its parking space, crossing the opposing lane. Better to concentrate on the road when the traffic was this bad. The car was edging in front of him, forcing him to slow down to let it into the lane, or risk leaving it stuck blocking the other lane. Resenting the other driver taking his co-operation for granted, he sounded the horn, then changed down to first gear.
Or so he thought.
But the van was pulling backwards. He’d yanked it a little too far—into reverse, almost as if his hand had not been his own. This wouldn’t be a problem if he could see directly behind him, but his high-stacked load of unwanted conifers blocked the rear view mirror, leaving him reliant on the limited vision offered by the wing mirrors. He braked, grimaced, expecting to feel the jarring impact of a vehicle behind him. Thankfully none came, only an irate honking from behind that suggested he’d got too close for comfort.
He’d been bloody lucky to avoid an accident. This road was worse than usual, the traffic driving in slow convoy along it. He wondered if there’d been a crash further up the road, on that terrible junction at the top of the hill, where fog always seemed to gather even on clear days. Come to think of it, maybe Simple Simon had been involved in one, which would explain both the delays and his non-appearance at the mess room. But no: as the van reached the brow of the hill, Sam saw a cyclist remonstrating with a woman whose car was blocking one lane. His bike lay on the floor, the wheel turning. More likely Simon had broken down or got stuck in the same traffic jam now slowing Sam down.
By the time he reached the waste site, he’d calmed down enough from the near-miss that he’d started whistling to himself. Nevertheless a couple of things were bothering him. The first was the whistling itself. He hadn’t even been consciously aware that he was doing it, nor of what he was whistling. As he slowed down to enter the site, it suddenly came to him that he was whistling the same haunting tune he’d heard when checking the bins in the park first thing that morning.
He waved to a colleague in a lemon-yellow reflective jacket, who was feeding dead Christmas trees into the hungry maw of a bark-chipping machine, its whirling blades grinding their limbs into mulch to spread on the shrub borders. It was only as he began reversing the van into position to tip his load that he put his finger on the other source of his nagging sense of unease. When he’d mistakenly gone backwards earlier on, he’d put this down to the closeness of the first gear to the reverse. But as he did so now, he remembered that was a feature of one of the newer, six-gear models he’d driven in the past. Bloom’s van was one of the older versions, with the reverse gear in its traditional position. So he’d have had to pull the gear-stick right over to the other side to make the error. Having realised this, he now had the uncanny feeling that his hand hadn’t been his own.
After dumping the Christmas trees, Sam checked his phone for a couple of calls he’d missed while driving. One was from Rosie, the other from Bone. There were also two messages on his voicemail. Rosie’s message asked what he was up to after work. He moved on, listened out for Fred’s deep growl.
At first there was just a sigh, then:
“Sam. Call back please. Simon’s in intensive care.”