It was obvious that old Albert Bridgewater would be a target for the local yobs in our village. He lived alone and apparently defenceless in an isolated cottage on the edge of Wicky Wood, a small dilapidated and overgrown place which looked as though it had sprung from the earth itself. I can’t recall that anyone apart from Albert had ever been inside. The story was that he had been born there, and after his parents had died he had lived alone, seemingly fairly content in his neglected surroundings. He may have been lonely, but was not really unsociable, just a solitary sort and as such was accepted as part of village life.
He was seen around the place, of course, collecting his pension from the Post Office and buying a few meagre groceries. His habitual greeting was a brief ‘Ow do?’ but he always tipped his cap - a very ancient and greasy cap - to the ladies. He had never had a proper job as far as anyone could recall, but he often helped the neighbouring farmers at busy times and was rewarded with farm produce of various kinds. Apart from growing a few vegetables himself he didn’t seem to do very much else - certainly not housework - except for collecting wood. That was seen to be his main activity. As well as carting home fallen branches he would cadge more substantial pieces from anyone nearby who had felled a garden or farm tree. The smoke from his cottage’s chimney was perpetual, winter and summer.
This way of life was not accepted by some in the area. I suppose the plaguing of anyone ‘different’ has always been part of any society, and Albert was different enough to attract the attentions of the aggressive delinquents active even in our quiet rural backwater, probably trying to mask their own inadequacies - but I’m certainly no psychologist. They just wouldn’t leave him alone.
I must have been about fifteen when the tragedy happened. Some of the rougher boys in my class had begun to harass Albert, and I hated them for what they got up to. Often they were drunk on cans of lager, and they threw stones to break his windows, pushed things through his letterbox, uprooted his vegetables, and set fire to his fence. I know all this because they boasted about it at school. He didn’t seem to retaliate at all and certainly didn’t involve the police. No one else did anything, and I shall forever be ashamed about that.
At the back of his cottage was a sort of small barn or shed, fairly dilapidated too. It was discovered later that there was usually a strong padlock, well oiled, on the door. If anyone had noticed this previously, the reason for the security had not been questioned. One evening some of the lads, fairly drunk as usual, were up to their tricks and noticed that there was a light inside the shed and that the padlock was missing. Two of them, Wayne Proctor and Danny Bell, couldn’t resist the temptation and disappeared inside. According to their mates’ evidence given to the police, there were initially crashing noises inside then shouting and scuffling, before Wayne emerged covered in blood and half-carried by Danny. He had been stabbed, fatally as it turned out. As can be imagined, the village was agog at the thought of Albert being arrested, unresisting, and taken away in a police car. The word went round that there was blood on his clothes.
Detective Constables Lambert and Appleby were left to examine the scene of the crime. Pete Lambert was a friend of my dad’s, and much later at our house he described what he and his mate had found. He said the sight which confronted them in the gloomy place stopped them in their tracks.
“It was fairly dark in there, and everywhere we looked there were eyes, eyes watching us, bright eyes like shiny beads in the shadowy corners, on the floor, up near the roof, on shelves around the walls. Quite frightening it was,” he said.
They soon realised that the eyes belonged to animals and birds, carved in lovingly polished wood, lots of them, many kinds. There were tiny wrens and finches, garden birds mingling with birds of prey, dogs, and rabbits. The two policeman made out an owl, a heron, and even an eagle, life-like, life-size, exquisitely made. There was a rocking-horse, chairs and small tables with legs carved into shapes of twisted foliage with more tiny creatures half-concealed in the leaves.
“Among other tools on a work bench was a set of knives. Two were blood-stained,” Pete went on. “Some of the carvings had been smashed, the splintered bits strewn across the floor among piles of wood shavings.
We bagged up the knives and secured the place, and that should have been that as far as we were concerned. But I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Still can’t.”
“You mean the carvings,” my mother said.
“Yeah. No wonder he collected all that wood. Never seen anything like it. Unbelievable. That scruffy old fella, he’d done all that marvellous stuff and no one knew. You’ve heard about the coffin I take it?”
Yes, we’d all heard about that. It was hidden in the darkest corner, an elaborate work of art which must have been the result of months - years - of craftsmanship. Beautifully polished, it too was carved with tiny animals, birds and foliage with delicate intricacy. It bore a plaque stating merely ALBERT BRIDGEWATER - CARPENTER. My mother had wept when she knew about it.
Albert had a superficial cut to his forearm which was treated at the local hospital. Later he told the police that the two boys had not seen him in the shed at first and had started smashing up his precious carvings. He admitted to being almost blind with rage but couldn’t remember who had picked up a knife first - a vital piece of information if his action was to be regarded as self-defence. His prints were on one knife and Wayne’s on the other. In the end the verdict was manslaughter but in self-defence, and there was a suspended sentence.
Unsurprisingly, the village was divided in its opinion of the event and the outcome. It must be admitted that although there was general sympathy for Wayne and his family it wasn’t excessive because the lad had been trouble wherever he went, but Albert was never accepted again on the same terms as before. After all, people were not quite sure just what had happened. I don’t think he did any more carving; he became more of a recluse and died eighteen months later, to be buried in his own unique coffin.
His pitiful belongings were disposed of to the tip or the bonfire, except of course for the carvings which were eventually sold, some for quite large amounts of money. “I’d love to buy that rocking horse for Emma,” I remember my mother saying, but it had been bought by someone else almost immediately. We did manage to acquire a song thrush. Albert had somehow been able to convey that bird’s typical nervous demeanour, head cocked, poised for flight, a beautiful work of art. How had he come by his skill, I wondered, an uneducated elderly nobody whose hobby had been unknown for so many years?
To me, the court’s verdict was the right one. Murder, never. Manslaughter yes - but was it self-defence, or was the boy defending himself against Albert’s overwhelming rage? Danny’s testimony favoured his friend of course, but we shall never know.
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