What Ho, Jeyes

We are again on the Mosquito Coast. Our friend O has a spare house here and she has been having trouble with the people who look after it for her. She gave her keys to friends a month or so ago, so that they could have a holiday there. The friends reported that the place was in a shocking state, the crockery smashed, the bed linen soiled, and the windows and the doors broken; they had cleaned up and replaced what needed to be replaced. O had phoned the man in the village who held the only other keys to the house. Putin-like, he had blamed ‘foreigners and gypsy elements’. It was necessary to confront him.

I wrote before of this man. He keeps a pig on the top floor of his own house. O’s first suspicion was that he had used the house himself, or allowed his friends, or indeed gypsy elements, to do so. He had a duplicate of all the keys, except that to the bathroom in the annex, for which O has the only key. However, the guests said nothing about discarded apple cores or the grosser signs of occupation by pigs, so he had to be given, provisionally, the benefit of the doubt.

We arrived in the village under lowering skies. Actually they had finished lowering and it was now pouring with rain. The better half has an amusing ‘app’ which tells her where she is wherever she goes. She showed it to me with a grim smile. ‘Unnamed street’, it read. We forced open the door. It was not a pretty sight, or smell. Mildew clung to the walls like lesions. Light fittings hung from the walls and ceilings where there had been unsuccessful attempts to remove the bulbs. The hob was a puddle of festering grease. Again, the crockery and the cutlery, even the cleaning materials had gone; the cupboards were bare. With a small cry the better half set about her with cleaning fluids and wire wool. She keeps these for just such circumstances, and goodness! the trouble decanting them into containers of not more than one millilitre or whatever it is for the purposes of being admitted as cabin luggage with British Airways earlier in the day. I retired to bed. At least, I thought sourly, as the wind ran through the broken windows and the rain lashed the walls and the lesions darkened, I shan’t need the anti-mosquito preparations; it is after all February. I put on a second pair of woolly socks and my tweed hat and addressed myself to sleep.

A tiny noise assailed my ear. I opened one eye. A small insect, clearly at the end of its tether, wobbled towards me through the air. It collapsed onto my wrist and with its last strength administered three bites. Then it died. It had lived, no doubt, but for this hour.

The better half seized my shoulder and was shaking me.

‘I’ve scoured all I can,’ she said. ‘Now for the pig man.’

‘I’m asleep,’ I said.

‘We need muscle.’

She explained that things had been taken from all the rooms, but that the only door to be damaged was that to the bathroom in the annex, which had been jemmied. Here was kept the washing machine, which had been used by the intruders, repeatedly to judge by the empty packets of washing powder on the floor. This of course was the only door to which our man had no key. It was time for a showdown.

It was dark by this stage. There were no street lights and the houses were for the most part deserted. I lashed out with my stick at the feral dogs. In stories you can see their red eyes in the shadows, but here the darkness was total and I hit out by instinct. It worked, for we arrived unscathed. The pig took our coats.

I guess that we were expected. Our man sat surrounded by his family. By his chair lay an old rifle, ethnically carved but apparently functional. There were four of his adult sons, his Russian child bride and his youngest daughter, a baby of some eight months, who smiled vaguely in our direction, wreathed in cigarette smoke. He glared at us. We formed our faces into returning glares but we were distracted by the sight of the baby.

‘It’s enormous,’ exclaimed O.

And so it was. It was a baby out of Russian folklore: the sort that eats people, and, in between, smiles and smiles.

‘Yes, yes,’ said the mother proudly. She explained that at three months old it had eaten a melon, and now regularly demolished whole fish: heads, bones and all.

‘Did she strangle snakes in her cradle?’ I said – but no one answered as I said it in English. I am sure that the Herculean reference would have been lost anyway, even so close to his old stamping grounds.

O and the better half addressed the man in Serbo-Croatian. This is not a language in which I have ever attained fluency and although I caught the odd word, such as ‘Jeyes’, ‘pigsty’ and ‘keys’ I was able to follow events more by looking at the faces of the protagonists. I myself maintained a scowl in my role as muscle.

‘Keys,’ said O again, holding out her hand. The word in Serbo-Croatian is very close to its Russian equivalent. The better half said something forceful too. I was so proud of her. The pig-man shuffled off and returned with a filthy piece of cloth, which he unwrapped. As he took out O’s set of keys, and handed it unwillingly to her, a bullet fell onto the floor. With fixed smiles we complimented his young bride again on her remarkable child and left.

Today the sun came out and a builder came. He said he could deal with the lesions, no problem, and sort out the locks and the doors. Except he said ‘sort oat’ because although Montenegrin he had learned his trade over many years in Canada.

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