Nuts and Bolts by Lydia Penn
The old corner house, it’s garden choked with weeds and overgrown bushes, had been vacant for so long, that it became an object of great interest in the street when signs of life began to appear; smartly dressed young men began coming and going, work began to tidy up the garden, and the “For Sale” sign was taken down.
No one was more interested than Betty Bolt who lived next door. While others might have described her as a “nosey parker”, Betty considered herself as merely “neighbourly”.
She accosted one of those smartly dressed young men to learn the date of the new owners’ arrival, and it was, of course, no coincidence that Betty chose that day to work vigorously in her own garden.
It was a fine spring day, and by midmorning Betty was at her post, weeding with great enthusiasm; by mid-afternoon she was tired, her back hurt and her muscles ached from the unaccustomed exercise. She was just beginning to think she would have to stop, when a large removal van appeared at the end of the street, followed by a shabby, dusty old model car.
Forgetting all her aches and pains, Betty rose to her feet, put on a plastic smile, and watched as the car stopped in the street and the van moved into the driveway. A man wearing jeans and a dirty tee shirt emerged from the driver’s side of the car. As he turned round Betty saw he had a deep red scar along the right side of his face, and his jaw appeared to be dropped to one side. At the sight of this unprepossessing, somewhat sinister looking individual, Betty’s plastic smile faded, and she stopped still. As she hesitated, the man marched into the house, and presently the passenger side door opened and out stepped, a slightly built woman with shoulder-length blonde hair, wearing a long floral dress. She too went into the house and the removal men began to unload.
Seven-year-old Mary came home from school, stationed herself by the window and gave a running commentary, while Betty began to prepare their evening meal.
She postponed her ‘neighbourly’ visit until the next morning, but later that evening gave her husband an up to date account of the activities next door. “……, and then she came out again carrying something in her hand, which she put on the floor at the back of the car, and then, …”.
Thomas Bolt was used to his wife’s daily bulletin on the neighbourhood activities, so he paid her scant attention, while he continued to watch his favourite T.V. programme. But when he looked out of the window the next morning, he was no longer indifferent to the new neighbours.
“What’s that peculiar looking creature that seems to have staked out a claim on our front lawn,” he barked.
“Oh,” said Betty joining him at the window, “its an Afghan. That’s what was in the back of the car”.
“Well please make sure it isn’t there when I come home tonight,” said Thomas as he went out of the front door.
As soon as she saw the car next door had also gone, Betty took a plate of newly baked scones and knocked on her new neighbours’ door, presuming that rather sinister looking man had gone to work. As she waited at the door she heard soft singing, and it was some time before the door was opened by the woman, still dressed in the long flowing floral dress. Betty introduced herself, the woman said nothing but opened the door wider, which Betty presumed was an invitation to come in.
She followed the still silent woman down a passageway stacked both sides with boxes and entered a small dark room at the back of the house.
“I’m Hazel,” the woman said at last. “I was just singing to Orphelia.”
Betty looked around expecting to see a baby, but the room was totally bare except for a couch under the window, covered with what appeared to be a bright red quilt. On it lay the Afghan. Hazel sat on the floor and commenced stroking its long silky coat; she began to sing again.
Betty stood there completely nonplussed, still clutching the plate of scones which Hazel did not seem to have noticed. Close up, she appeared older than Betty had thought at first, and her eyes had a wild fierce expression.
She’s nuts, thought Betty uneasily, wondering if she could just walk out when she heard the sound of a car. The door opened and in came the Man with the scarred face.
“Hello,” he said quite pleasantly, and held out his hand to Betty. “I’m Wal Nutt.” He smiled, but with his distorted jaw and disfigured face, it looked more like a leer.
“I, er, was just going,” said Betty, thrusting the plate of scones into his hand, and heading for the door. As she walked rapidly down the path she saw the curtains move at the window of number four opposite and knew that Thelma Wright would be eagerly waiting for a full report.
“Gave me the creeps”, said Betty, drinking tea in Thelma’s cosy kitchen. “He must have been in a fight or something. I wouldn’t like to meet him out on a dark night. He looks really violent”.
“Is she afraid of him, do you think?” asked Thelma.
Betty shrugged. “It’s all so weird. I couldn’t face going back in there. And I mean, nothing, absolutely nothing, had been unpacked. I could hardly get in the front door.” She declined another cup of tea and got up to go. She was due at the hairdresser’s – another fruitful source for gossip.
It was two days later in the early evening when suddenly the Bolts heard a lot of loud noise coming from next door. After about ten minutes, when it seemed to be even louder, Betty suggested to Thomas that he should ask them to turn down the T.V. a little.
He opened the front door and went out only to retreat inside again quickly.
“That’s not T.V.,” he replied. “No T.V. station would dare to put out that language or those expletives. They’re having a row.”
They stood listening at the front door, joined by Mary who had acquired her mother’s interest in neighbourhood activities. Presently out ran Wal Nutt, followed by screams and a barrage of pots, pans, and crockery which piled up in the front garden.
There was silence after that, and the Bolt family returned indoors. Then in the twilight, Mary, who was still looking out of the window, yelled out, “Mummy, what’s that man doing up against the fence?”
“Oh no,” gasped Betty.” Get away from that window at once,” she ordered, as she went to get her binoculars from the kitchen table. She was just in time to see Wal Nutt climb into the back seat of his car. Periodic checks during the evening showed that he was still there.
“What should we do?” Betty asked her husband. “It is domestic violence, isn’t it?”
“Just keep out of it,” retorted Thomas, as he went about checking the locks on all the doors and windows.
All was now quiet, and the next morning they saw Wal Nutt emerge from the house and drive off in his car as if nothing had happened. But as Betty surveyed the wreckage in the next door garden, she was furious to see that pieces of her plate were among the debris.
Nothing more seemed to be happening next door; Betty did not call in again, and there were a lot of other interesting events in the street to take up her attention; Thelma’s mother-in-law was coming for a visit; the daughter of the lady in number eighteen was pregnant and had to leave school; the husband of Mrs Price in number nine had just left her again. All these news items and their ramifications were enough to keep the gossips of Almond Avenue well occupied over their teacups for several weeks.
It was a Saturday morning. Betty and Thomas were enjoying a leisurely breakfast. Betty finished her summary of the recent neighbourhood events while a bleary-eyed Thomas listened in silence.
She paused drinking her coffee, then looking out of the kitchen window suddenly remarked, “you know I haven’t seen Orphelia around in the garden for a while.”
“She’s probably gone on holiday,” muttered Thomas taking another piece of toast.
“Don’t be silly. Orphelia’s the Afghan, “said Betty.” Though come to think of it, I haven’t seen Hazel either. I’ve been so busy lately that I’d forgotten her.”
“Well there’s someone there,” said Thomas, “The other evening when you and Mary were out I heard a lot of sawing and banging going on in the garage, and the car’s still there.”
Betty’s curiosity was fully aroused once more. Later that morning she knocked at the Nutt’s front door.
After some time the door was opened by Wal still in his pyjamas looking even more unprepossessing with red-rimmed eyes and a haggard unshaven face. The leer was very pronounced as he looked silently at Betty.
“Oh, er, I just wondered how Hazel is”, she stammered. “I haven’t seen her lately”.
“Gone to her mother”. snarled Wal Nutt preparing to close the door. Betty retreated!
That afternoon Mary reported,”that man’s digging a big hole in his back garden,” — and Betty suddenly remembered that there was a lot of weeding to be done in the Bolt’s back garden!
As the long summer evening drew to a close, even Thomas became curious when Mary, watching from her bedroom window, yelled out again, “Mummy, Daddy, that man is putting a big box into the hole.”
Out came the binoculars again! Later when Mary (who had been caught eves dropping at the door) had been sent to bed, Thomas and Betty sat in the kitchen discussing the matter.
“Do you think he’s killed Hazel and buried her in the garden?” asked Betty.
Thomas was more logical. “Hardly in broad daylight. The man’s surely not such a fool.”
“It wasn’t broad daylight. It was getting dark,” argued Betty. “And what about Crippen — didn’t he murder his wife and say she’d gone to her mother? Or was that someone else?”
“Betty, you just keep out of it — and for goodness sake shut up Mary too,” said Thomas sternly. “It’s none of your business what goes on next door.”
But Betty felt it was her business, and for the rest of the weekend her imagination ran wild. On Monday morning she was back in Thelma’s kitchen with a highly embellished account of Saturday’s activities.
“Better tell the police,” decided Thelma. “I mean it’s your neighbourly duty. Oh, and by the way, that Mary of yours has been telling all the kids at school that your neighbours are nuts.”
Betty laughed. “Well that’s true actually. Their name is Nutt.”
“Is that so?” Thelma guffawed loudly and slapped her ample thigh as she got up to refill the teapot. “Well if that doesn’t beat everything.”
Betty returned to the subject of the police as she stirred sugar into the tea. “What would I say to them. I mean they might think that I’m nuts too if I tell them such a story.”
“Well it’s all true isn’t it?” said Thelma. “Look I’ll come with you. You must report that Hazel is missing; it’s your duty.”
While Betty still hesitated, Thelma reached into the cupboard behind her and pulled out a bottle. “Here, have a little tipple in your tea. That will give you courage.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t,” said Betty holding out her cup for a lavish tipple from Thelma.
Thus well fortified the two set off for the police station where a bewildered young constable listened to Betty’s story which was punctuated by frequent interruptions and hiccups from Thelma.
Pair of old busybodies, he thought as they went out of the door after giving Betty’s name and address. However he had to report their call, and two evenings later Mary responded seeing a policeman calling next door.
But when nothing more happened, three days later Betty and Thelma were back at the police station.
“Aren’t you going to get an exhumation order?” demanded Betty as she faced a stern looking inspector. “I mean isn’t that what you do?”
“Madam,” he replied. “I must request you not interfere in your neighbour’s affairs. We have spoken to the gentleman and are quite satisfied.” The phone rang, and as he picked it up he gave them a dismissive nod.
But Betty was not satisfied.
That evening she stood once more at the Nutt’s front door, courageous in her indignation.
“Oh, it’s you again,” said Wal as he opened the door and glared at her. “You’re the interfering busybody who went to the police.” He stepped outside and towered over Betty who was already wishing she hadn’t come.
He continued, “we got this place at a cheap rent because they couldn’t sell it and now we’ll have to move again just as we did from the last place because of an interfering old biddy like you.”
“But Hazel _ _ _”, Betty said.
“I told you she’s gone to her mother. Hazel is very sick and when she gets violent I can’t handle her like her mother can.”
While Betty stood mesmerised he turned round and pointed to his face. “Where do you think I got that jaw and those scars?” he demanded.
she was appalled, “But surely there are places _ _ _ ” she looked at him in horror and pity.
“No one’s going to take her from me. I love her you understand.” As he spoke his face crumpled and he burst into uncontrollable sobs _ _ a terrible sight!
Betty was aghast. ” You must be n___” she began, but stopped herself in time. The man continued to sob loudly.
“She loved Orphelia. What am I going to tell her,” he whimpered.
Betty was completely out of her depth but at the mention of Orphelia, light began to dawn. “You mean, Orphelia _ _ _ _ “.
“Follow me,” he ordered and led her into the back garden where he seized a large spade and vigourously threw up clouds of earth until finally he exposed the coffin. He took off the lid.
There lay Orphelia, her long silky hair spread out carefully over the red quilt which Betty had seen previously.” She was so old,” he muttered.
Suddenly, his mood changed.
“Now you get out of my way,” he rasped, raising the spade menacingly. “You just get back into your Bolt Hole quick.”
Betty needed no second warning. Stumbling and shaken, she managed to reach the safety of her own home where she collapsed in a heap inside the front door. “oh my,” she gasped. “They’re both completely nuts! Stark raving mad.”
Early the next week it was with great relief that the Bolts saw the removal van again. Wal Nutt got in his old car, packed tightly with cardboard boxes, and followed the van down the road shaking a fist as he went.
Soon the “For Sale” sign reappeared in the now cleaned up garden, and the ladies of Almond Avenue returned to more innocuous sources of gossip.